A heartfelt memoir of grief and loss from one of Cape Town’s top writers

Review: Vivien Horler

Death and the After Parties, by Joanne Hichens (Karavan Press)

The cover of this memoir is beautiful. A white porcelain heart, patterned with blue flowers, over which gold threads meander.

It was only after I’d finished the book and was staring at the cover that the meaning of the gold threads sank in. (There are I think two references in the book so I was perhaps a little slow.)

Towards the end, when author Joanne Hichens is just beginning to recover from her grief at losing her husband, she visits her therapist and announces: “I’ve started acting classes… And I learned to do kintsugi… And I’m back at the gym!”

She explains kintsugi: “The ancient Japanese art of fixing splintered pottery with lacquer mixed with gold or silver is the remaking of the fragmented into something precious.” She has mended a broken dish of her mother’s, and adds: “Finding treasure in life’s cracks, I work with imperfection, create a piece of art.”

And that’s what the cover shows: a broken heart, partially mended, perhaps more beautiful than before.

Joanne Hichens

Hichens is a fine writer, best known for her detective thrillers. About 10 years ago she and her family entered “the valley of the shadow of death”. Her mother developed lung cancer, was given six weeks to live, and died six weeks to the day after her diagnosis.

Hichens had thought she would fall apart, but she coped. Three years later her husband Robert woke up with what appeared to be indigestion, and within 15 minutes of walking into Constantiaberg Hospital he died. He was in his early 50s. Continue reading

Tripping up in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde

Review: Vivien Horler

To the End of the World – Travels with Oscar Wilde, by Rupert Everett (Little, Brown/ Jonathan Ball)

If ever you’ve thought of making a feature film – and you probably haven’t – sit down quietly until the urge passes.

I know a bit of what I’m talking about: my nephew has produced two films (one of them, Flatland, a Western set in the Karoo, is currently on circuit) and found the experience exhausting, expensive and frequently heartbreaking.

But if you really want to know what it’s like, read Rupert Everett’s To the End of the World, a 10-year quest to make a movie about the last years of Oscar Wilde’s life. He describes it as a “snakes and ladders” effort, repeatedly nearly there, only to be swallowed by a snake and slithering back down to square one.

Rupert Everett was in Another Country, about two gay boys at an English public school, and is probably best remembered for his role in the hilarious My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring with Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. Continue reading

Diaries provide a charming glimpse into the teen and war years of Queen Elizabeth

Review: Vivien Horler

The Windsor Diaries 1940-45, by Alathea Fitzalan Howard

My mother, who was 14 and living in Cornwall when World War II broke out in 1939, would occasionally talk about the privations of food rationing. They were allowed something like one egg and 50g of butter a week.

But for the upper classes, things were a bit different. Here is Alathea Alys Gwendolen Mary Fitzalan Howard describing the menu for a dinner at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Kent at Windsor in April 1945, just a month before the end of the war.

“We ate curried eggs and lobster, chicken in aspic and salad, and chocolate soufflé, orange salad and pastry cornets, filled with real cream and we drank Champagne and coffee.

“I sat next to Freddy Shaughnessy, who took a violent fancy to me though I don’t think him attractive.”

Alathea Fitzalan-Howard

Alathea was born privileged – had she been a boy she would have become the Duke of Norfolk – and she moved in the topmost of upper circles. Before the war she – and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret – had lived in London, but when the bombs started falling the royal family moved to Windsor Castle for their safety, and Alathea was sent to live with her grandfather and aunt in a grace-and-favour house in Windsor Great Park.

This meant the three girls – Alathea was 16 when the war broke out and a couple of years older than Elizabeth – were ideally positioned to socialise.

Alathea was often lonely as her own family weren’t close, and she loved being invited to the Castle for teas, dances, art lessons, dinners and walks with the princesses. Continue reading

Thriller points to suffering in one of England’s most beautiful counties

Reviews: Vivien Horler

The Golden Rule, by Amanda Craig (Little, Brown/ Jonathan Ball)

Homesick: Why I live in a shed, by Catrina Davies (Quercus)

Two women meet on a train from London to Cornwall. Eve is wealthy, travelling first class, Hannah is in second class. The door between the carriages slides open and they make eye contact.

Hannah’s carriage is crowded and the air-con isn’t working; Eve is sitting coolly in splendid isolation. Eve beckons to Hannah to join her. They get talking.

Over a bottle of wine they discover they are both bitterly unhappy in their marriages. Eve comes up with a crazy proposal: what if each woman were to kill the other’s husband? Their meeting has been by chance, they have nothing in common, there would be nothing to connect them to each other’s lives or the crimes.

They make a pact.

At this point I thought, nah, come on – how likely is this? (Although the theme is not new; a similar plot was at the heart of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 thriller Strangers on a Train, a debt Amanda Craig readily acknowledges.)  I was about to give up on the novel when I read the insightful line: “Divorce may start with the failure of love, but in the end it is always about money.”

I read on.

Eve’s husband lives in Cornwall in a crumbling mansion near Land’s End; she is on her way to discuss with him some aspect of their divorce. Hannah is on her way to be with her ailing mother as she dies. Continue reading

Seven votes: the drama of South Africa’s entry into World War 2

Review: Archie Henderson

Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa Forever, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball)

The old House of Assembly in South Africa’s Parliament has been the setting for some dramatic events, none more bloody than the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd in September 1966 and none more profound than the vote on September 4, 1939, to go to war.

The vote of 1939 contained enough drama to fill an entire book but Richard Steyn has resisted the temptation and given the story a more contemporary dimension. With his fine feel for the current readership of South African history, Steyn has taken the vote drama beyond 1939 to the beginning of apartheid and the stirrings of militant black resistance.

He was inspired to write this book by one he had read 30 years before. At van Wyk’s Vyf Dae was all about the vote, but it was published only in Afrikaans. 

It is indeed odd that no one, until now, has thought of emulating Van Wyk in English. Elsewhere we have had snippets of those dramatic five days, most recently in the republication by House of Emslie of No Outspan, the third of Denys Reitz’s trilogy, Adrift on the Open Veld. Steyn has correctly judged that a drama loses nothing with age. Those five days – even six if you count the Friday on which Hitler’s panzers rolled into Poland – held not only South Africans in thrall. Britain and the Commonwealth looked on anxiously too, as did Nazi Germany no doubt. Continue reading

Wonderful tale of loss and loves in Trinidad

Review: Vivien Horler

Love after Love, by Ingrid Persaud (faber & faber/ Jonathan Ball)

This glorious novel is suffused with love and longing. There is marital love, maternal love, gay love, even love for the place you come from. And sometimes it turns up unexpectedly.

One of the central characters of Love after Love is the West Indian island of Trinidad, where Betty Ramdin, a teacher, lives with her abusive husband Sunil and young son Solo.

The flavor of the marriage is exposed on the first page when Sunil calls Betty. As she approaches him he kicks her on the shin and says: “Slow coach. You can’t come when I call you? What, you ugly and you deaf?”

Within four pages Betty has a broken arm and Sunil is dead. But he casts a long shadow throughout the novel.

Shortly afterwards Betty tells a colleague that she has a room to let in her big old house. Mr Chetan moves in with Betty and Solo. Continue reading

Some dark but gripping thrillers

Reviews: Vivien Horler

Camino Winds, by John Grisham (Hodder & Stoughton/ Jonathan Ball)

When She was Good, by Michael Robotham (Sphere/ Jonathan Ball)

The Silent Wife, by Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins/ Jonathan Ball)

If I can say it without sounding rude, John Grisham is a book machine. Camino Winds was published this year and his next thriller, A Time for Mercy, is due out next month. And the list of his titles runs to more than 40, including a single non-fiction book.

And they all – well the ones I’ve read – make for engaging reading.

Hurricane Leo is bearing down on Florida’s Camino Island, and the state governor gives the order to evacuate. But Bruce Cable, owner of Bay Books in the island town of Santa Rosa, decides to stay put.

The hurricane hits and is terrifying. Buildings collapse, the water and lights go off, trees are uprooted and a sea surge floods houses and shops. Twenty-four hours later around 12 people are dead, including Cable’s writer friend Nelson Kerr.

He is found on his patio with wounds to his head. Why would he have gone outside in the storm, puzzles Cable. Maybe his dog got out and he went after it? But Nick, a college student who works in Cable’s bookstore in the holidays, is a detective thriller devotee. He looks at the body and suggests the head wounds were deliberately inflicted.

The police are overwhelmed with the task of clearing up after the storm, and aren’t interested, but Cable and Nick become convinced Nelson was murdered. They find the manuscript of Nelson’s latest book on his computer, all about how care homes are giving dodgy drugs to old people to keep them alive so they will continue paying the high care costs.

Could this be true? Cable and Nick interview some care home staff and begin to suspect that Nelson was on to something, and that powerful interests didn’t want the book published.

The description of the evacuation of the island, the hurricane and its aftermath make for great reading, and then there’s also the murder mystery to solve. Camino Winds is a great read.

Michael Robotham’s thriller When She was Good is darker and has child abuse at its centre.

Cyrus Haven is a forensic psychologist who has befriended Evie Cormac, a teenage girl with a troubled past. The body of a small-time criminal, Terry Boland is found, tied up and gagged, in a house. He has been tortured. His body is removed and the house is cleaned up.

Then neighbours complain about things going missing: food, sweets, playing cards, and the police assume it’s kids. But a young special constable, Sacha, is suspicious. She arranges to spend a night in the house and discovers a feral child of about eight, living in a secret compartment built behind a cupboard.

No one has reported her missing, and she refuses to divulge her name. She is eventually made a ward of the court, given a new name and sent to a place of safety. Six years later she is a difficult teenager who is threatened with being admitted to a mental home.

Cyrus, who wants to protect her, interviews Sacha to find out if there were any details she remembers that may help Evie unravel her identity.

But powerful people with terrible secrets do not want that to happen. So while Sacha and Cyrus are seeking clues to the puzzle, Evie herself is convinced that they will lead Terry Boland’s killers to themselves and to her.

This is an often unsettling but compelling read.

Karin Slaughter’s The Silent Wife is also pretty dark. One likes to think that in real life there are very few of the kind of sicko who is behind attacks on young women in a small American college town.

It starts with a young student going for a run in the woods. She begins to feel uncomfortable and is right to do so – someone is watching her and attacks her. When she is found she is so badly hurt that at first police believe her to be dead.

Agent Will Trent and forensic pathologist Sara Linton are contacted by a man in jail for murder. He was convicted of a similar attack 10 years ago that left a young girl dead. The modus operandi in the two cases is identical, but the convict couldn’t have been second attacker.

So they start investigating the old case, and discover the original dead girl wasn’t the only one. Trent and Linton seem to have stumbled on the trail of a serious pervert who is also a serial killer.

It’s all pretty horrific, but again an engrossing thriller.




When the pestilence came to Stratford

Review: Vivien Horler

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)

Hamnet Shakespeare was William Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged 11 in the British summer of 1596.

To our eyes the name is a strange one, accustomed as we are to the name of the Prince of Denmark in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. But Shakespeare scholar Steven Greenblatt has written that in Stratford records of the late 16th and early 17th centuries the names Hamlet and Hamnet are interchangeable.

Maggie O’Farrell, who won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction with this novel, has taken the scant historical details of Shakespeare’s home life in Stratford and created a beautiful, slightly mystical story of a 16th century extended family.

At the centre of the book is Hamnet’s death and the devastation it causes, but there is much else besides in this telling, including the passionate love story between the son of a glove maker and a wild young farmer’s daughter who flies a kestrel, treats people with her herbal remedies, and feels most at home in the forest near her home. Continue reading

You don’t need isiZulu when making a Zulu movie – but it helps

Review: Vivien Horler

Starlite Memories – Misadventures in moviemaking, by Dov Fedler (Tafelberg)

What is the Zulu word for “furtive”?

This is one of the first challenges Dov Fedler confronts when he begins to direct a shoestring budget movie for black audiences called Timer Joe Part 3.

Fedler speaks no Zulu, but on the first day of filming in downtown Joburg, he is informed by the producer, the gum-chewing Moe Mankowitz, that the cast must be addressed only in that language. This is one of the terms of the subsidy given by the apartheid government to movie makers for the black market.

The year is 1983 and it is a long time before Google, so Fedler can’t look up “furtive”. He asks Moe if he can speak isiZulu. Moe chews harder and responds: “Do I look as if I speak Zulu?” Continue reading

Fine dining in the bush by legendary restaurateur


Review: Myrna Robins

Out of an African Kitchen, by Nicky Fitzgerald (Struik Lifestyle)

It couldn’t have come at a better time. As lockdown lifts and international travel beckons, it’s wonderful to receive a cookbook for review that is not only physically alluring, but offers a welcome glimpse of life on a luxurious safari lodge, perfectly perched on the edge of the Great Rift Valley overlooking the renowned Maasai Mara game reserve.

As we absorb the difficulties of producing great food in the Kenyan bush, we  admire the enthusiasm and skills of an impressive team of chefs, and drool over a fine treasury of recipes.

Angama Mara was the latest in a series of well known hotel and restaurant ventures. Nicky and Steve Fitzgerald presided over the rebuilding of the Arniston Hotel, and then Blues Restaurant on the Camps Bay beachfront, followed by the Bay Hotel.

Five years ago the Fitzgeralds launched Angama Mara, but two years later Steve died a month after having a heart transplant. Nicky has kept the flag flying, feeding her international guests with fine fare that isn’t fancy. Using her experience of more than two decades of catering, Nicky decided that culinary focus should be on authenticity… “less fancy imported ingredients, more locally grown. Less drizzles, gels and foams… less ego in the kitchen…”

Vegetables are sourced from the Kenyan highlands, tropical fruits from the coast, freshwater fish from Lake Victoria, honey delivered in five-litre buckets from local beekeepers. Menus make full use of indigenous Arab-inspired Swahili dishes from the coast and Indian cuisine from the large community that has called Kenya home for generations. A kitchen garden enables guests to pick their own ingredients and toss their own salads for lunch. At the other end of the gastronomic spectrum Angama caters happily for vegan, gluten-free and low sodium recipes, adapts meals to cope with food allergies, makes sure that exotic ingredients – think sumac, za’atar and almond milk – are stocked. Continue reading