Beating Doubt to fulfil the dream

Review: Vivien Horler

The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers, by Finuala Dowling (Kwela Books)

At least crocodiles tend to be drowsy in cold weather.

These are the words of comfort Paddy Dowling’s best man whispers to him at the altar as news arrives that Paddy’s former lover, the crocodile tamer Koringa, has arrived – with reptile – to disrupt his wedding.

The story of this moment becomes part of much-repeated family lore, a narrative Finuala Dowling unpicks in this fictionalised biography of her father, a flawed, damaged yet brilliant man who never quite achieves his dreams.

Paddy’s father held him just once, during World War 1, before being sent off to Europe where he was killed. The family are relatively wealthy, but Paddy’s mother is not a nurturer, and he becomes an anxious yet hopeful little boy, close only to his sister.

In his early teens Paddy, a boarder at a Catholic school in England, is sent to France in his summer holidays to improve his French. There he happens to fall in with a circus troupe which includes Koringa, billed as the only female fakir in the world.

The first time he sees her she is sitting on the back of  circus trailer, her crocodile – actually an alligator because they’re smaller and easier to train – in her lap. Knowing he is watching her, she pulls open the reptile’s jaws and puts her head in its mouth.

Paddy is smitten, and so begins a largely one-sided love affair that dominates the first half of his life.

After various adventures Paddy comes to South Africa shortly after the outbreak of World War 2 and serves as a sapper in the Eighth Army in Egypt and Italy. The tension-filled horrors of disarming mines fuel his life-long nightmares.

But in Cape Town after the war he meets Vandy, an actress, beautiful, strong-willed and glamorous, a woman who chats to her mother in Latin and who like Paddy, longs to write. They discover, to their mutual delight, they both want babies and will write their opuses while the babies are asleep.

Of course it doesn’t quite turn out that way.

Interwoven with Paddy’s story are extracts from Vandy’s journal, and fragments from the writer’s diary which amount to something of a master class on novel writing. The impression is created that the titular novelist, Gina, who has a hated job in a call centre, is writing her first book. But we know The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers is Finuala Dowling’s sixth novel, so she has form and insights to offer.

Doubt, “that elegant, worldly bitch with her you-can’t-do-this sneer”, plagues her. Is she over-writing? She knows she has a story, but is there a novel here at all? And then she tells herself to return to first principles: “Arrive late, leave early. If it doesn’t move the story along, give insight into the character or provide beauty or humour, delete. Know the difference between baffling your reader and telling her too much.”

And then there is Dowling’s ability to conjure a sense of place. This novel ranges from the UK, France, wartime Egypt and Italy, to Cape Town where characters walk along the Sea Point promenade, buy fruit from the sellers in their tent at East Beach in Muizenberg, go swimming at Surfer’s Corner and listen to winter’s north-wester rattling the windows of the house in Kalk Bay.

This is a rich, textured novel and possibly Dowling’s best to date.

Continue reading

Local crime thriller describes terror up the Amazon

Review: David Bristow

The Shining Path – a Bernie Bernard crime thriller, by Monty Roodt (Meteoric Publishers)

The cover shout tells us this book is “… a riot of great thriller writing. Hold tight!”* What could go wrong? For Bernie Bernard, in Peru while on sabbatical from academic duties at Rhodes University, quite a lot.

 The Shining Path is the second thriller to involve full-time university lecturer and part-time sleuth, Bernie Bernard. The first, Dead Man’s Land, involved the murder of a local farmer, bigot and possibly worse, who seemed to be embroiled in local politics and land issues. But we’ll leave that one there.

Number two begins in the pub at The Pig and Whistle in Bathurst, possibly South Africa’s oldest pub (there are other contenders), which happens to be Bernie’s local. But the action quickly shifts to Peru and the Amazon. In that way it recalls The Heart of Darkness, with the narrator taking up some slack time on an outward-bound ship to relate to his dark ordeal up the Congo River. Continue reading

Bushmen are the most diverse group of humans

Review: Myrna Robins

First People: The lost history of the Khoisan, by Andrew Smith (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

This well-written book’s introduction, which doubles as a summary of the author’s career, makes a great start to a great read.

The extent of Andrew Smith’s research, physical excavations and accumulation of knowledge is truly impressive. Run your eye down the list of his published titles and you will see that this professor of archaeology published a history of the Khoikhoi of Southern Africa (1996) and one of the Bushmen (2000) and now combines them with this accessible history. Continue reading

‘Keep your head down and your heart hard.’

Review: Vivien Horler

A Terrible Kindness, by Jo Browning Wroe (faber)

Sometimes at my book club we’ll be going through the books we’ve read and then pick one up and say: ‘Um, what was this one about again?’
A Terrible Kindness is not one of those. I suspect it’ll stay with me for a long time.
Apart from the poignance of the story line, there is also the unexpected juxtaposition of two unlikely topics: choral music and the undertaking trade.
And then there’s the ghastly 1966 Welsh tragedy of Aberfan, when a colliery tip slipped down a mountain into the village of Aberfan, engulfing a number of houses and a primary school just after lessons had begun for the day. More than 140 people died, most of them children. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for April

Bedside Table April

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. All are among Exclusive Books’ top 25 reads for April. Some will be reviewed in full later.

The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers, by Finuala Dowling (Kwela Books)

We read so many novels set in London or New York or California, and it is a delight to read one set here, in what I call the Shallow South – roughly Lakeside to Muizenberg. Right at the start Finuala Dowling tells us where we are: “The waves this morning were laced with bluebottles and browned by the wind’s relentless churning of kelp beds. Along the catwalk to Kalk Bay and on every available rock, anglers were casting out.” And: “A depressing gale blew yesterday from dawn until well past midnight. I was one of the few people braving Muizenberg beach.”

Gina is an aspiring novelist who works in a call centre. She wants to write a fictionalised story about her father, and it has to be a fiction because she knows so little about him. But she does know he was once engaged to Koringa, a crocodile tamer, and that he is buried in an unmarked grave. She wants to “climb inside my father’s youth, run away to the circus with him, fall in love: that is what I want.” Eventually she uncovers the truth about her father, a complex and ultimately nervous man.

Cape Talk presenter John Maytham said of this novel: “I am the man who loved The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers. I am the man who loved it very much through many smiles and snorts of uncontrolled laughter and occasional tears.”

Love Marriage, by Monica Ali (Virago)

Yasmin and Joe are engaged. They are young London doctors, in love, and everything seems rosy. Yasmin’s parents might have hoped she would find a nice Muslim boy to marry, but haven’t said anything, possibly because their own match back in Calcutta was a love marriage. But both Yasmin and Joe are worried about what will happen when their parents meet. Yasmin’s parents are traditional and conservative, Joe’s mother Harriet is a wealthy, fiery feminist who once posed naked on her back with her legs akimbo, peering challengingly right into the lens. Years later the picture is of course still out there, and Yasmin’s irritating younger brother has found it and is threatening to show it to their parents. What could go wrong? This is a story of families and cultures and how hard it can be to steer a true course between very different backgrounds. One reviewer said he thought Love Marriage was Ali’s best, and added: “Ali writes like an angel who is not afraid of the devil.”

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday/Penguin)

This novel, which opens in the early 1960s, has another feminist as its protagonist. Elizabeth Zott was once a research chemist whose all-male co-scientists didn’t believe in equality. Life takes some unexpected turns which include a relationship with another scientist, and Elizabeth ends up as a single mother and the reluctant star of an American cooking show, Supper at Six. Her scientific approach –  “combine one tablespoon of acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride” – proves to be wildly popular with viewers. She is bold, uncompromising, and never bothers with tiny cucumber sandwiches, little soufflés or jokes. But the viewers love her – even President Lyndon Johnson loves her. Every programme ends with her signature catchphrase: “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.” But the concept of mothers needing time to themselves doesn’t please everyone: along with teaching women to cook, she’s also daring them to challenge social norms. TV cook and cookery writer Nigella Lawson wrote of this novel: “I am devastated to have finished it.”

Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize for his depressing but brilliant debut novel Shuggie Bain, about a young boy growing up in an utterly dysfunctional and poverty-stricken family in Glasgow. Stuart has returned to the city in his second novel Young Mungo, a story of love between two young men, one Catholic and one Protestant in a city divided along sectarian lines. If Mungo and James want to be seen as proper men at all they should be enemies, and yet they have bonded over Jame’s prize racing pigeons. They have to hide their love, especially from Mungo’s brother Hamish, a local gang leader. Will they be able to find a future far away from the grey drizzly city and the threat posed by people’s intolerance towards gay men?

A Terrible Kindness, by Jo Browning Wroe (faber)

It is October 1966 and 19-year-old William is attending a swanky dinner-dance in Nottingham to mark his graduation from embalming college. During the speeches a waiter hands the speaker a telegram. “Embalmers needed urgently at Aberfan. Bring equipment and coffins.”  Shortly after 9am the previous day a waste tip from the Merthyr Vale colliery, loosened by two days of heavy rain, slipped down the mountain to the village of Aberfan and engulfed Pantglas primary school and two rows of houses. Within two hours some children were pulled out alive, but after that there were just bodies – more than 140 of them. Working in Aberfan will be William’s first job, and it is one that will remind him of memories he has tried to bury. But he discovers that his compassion towards others ultimately helps to heal himself. British novelist Rachel Joyce said of this book: “It’s a long time since I’ve read a debut novel that moved me so much.”


Mea Culpa

The editor of The Books Page has been celebrating the arrival of her Australian family, which includes two very small boys. As a result of general bustle, not enough reading has been done to merit a book review. Services, as Eskom might say, will resume soon.

Happy reading and happy Easter!

Why another Trump term is a real possibility

Review: Archie Henderson

How the South won the Civil War, by Heather Cox Richardson (Oxford University Press)

American politics can be baffling to an outsider, what with filibusters, gerrymandering, plenums, PACs and pork barrel politics. It’s not just the language, it’s the people who speak that language, many of them as hard to understand as their national political jargon.

In 2016, almost 63 million of them voted in the US presidential election for Donald Trump, an Olympic-class narcissist, a misogynist who is also disrespectful of national heroes and an unashamed cheat – on his taxes and his wives. Even more difficult to figure out is how he won when his opponent, Hillary Clinton, got 2 million votes more. It was the fault of the electoral college, another oddity which is meant to be a safeguard against electing a buffoon as US president. It didn’t work. Continue reading

It’s not about the process – it’s about my dad

Review: Vivien Horler

Unforgiven, by Liz McGregor – face to face with my father’s killer (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

A murder trial is not about the victim. He or she is simply the backdrop to a contest between state and accused, each trying to assert the supremacy of its own narrative.

Or, as journalist and writer Liz McGregor puts it later in this searingly honest, harrowing and gripping memoir: “The offender’s deeds are seen as a crime against the laws of the state, and are therefore a matter between legal professionals and the state. The victim is merely collateral.”

The victim in this case was her beloved father, and the official view wasn’t good enough for McGregor. Robin McGregor was central to her life and that of her four siblings, and she was determined to restore him to the centre of the narrative. She also wanted to ask the man convicted of her father’s death: why, and what happened that night?

And so she embarked on a years’ long mission to meet the killer in Voorberg Prison near Porterville and pose these questions to him. Continue reading

Brillliant story of a maverick’s fight in World War 2

Review: Vivien Horler

The Postmistress of Paris, by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)

One of the delights of historical fiction, done well, is the information and insight it gives the reader into the past.

And Med Waite Clayton’s historical fiction is done well, in fact done beautifully. It feels a bit strange referring to a novel about World War 2 as “historical fiction”; I was born just seven years after that war ended, so what does that make me?

But today there are vanishingly few people left who have any memory of that conflict, so a novel like this is our best way of connecting with the events and emotions of that time. (With Putin’s war in Ukraine of course, we could also watch the news.)

In The Postmistress of Paris Clayton returns to Europe, this time under the shadow of pending war, but the story here is very different from the bestselling, prize-winning The Last Train to London, about the rescue of thousands of Jewish children from Vienna in 1939. Continue reading

Bedside table books for March

These were the books that landed on Vivien Horler’s desk this month. Some may be reviewed in full later. The top four are among Exclusive Books’s top choices for March.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson (Michael Joseph)

Black cake is a type of fruitcake made at Christmas in the Caribbean, featuring blackened sugar, dried fruit soaked in red wine and rum, preferably for months, as well as candied citron, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. It is reportedly a mission to make. And black cake is a recurring theme in this family saga of love and loss (and a bit of murder) set partly on an unnamed Caribbean island, the UK and eventually in southern California. When Eleanor Bennett dies a widow, she has been estranged from her daughter for eight years. Before the funeral brother and sister are summoned to a lawyer’s office and told their mother’s last wish was for them to hear the truth about where they come from and their family history. This truth is expressed in a recording made by Eleanor over many hours, and it turns the adult children’s world upside down.

I’m halfway through this and loving it.

Serpent Crescent, by Vivian de Klerk (Picador Africa)

The cover blurb is promising: retired English teacher Megan Merton lives in the small Eastern Cape town of Qonda, where the power and water supplies are unreliable and the municipal dump spews noxious fumes. Merton lives in Serpent Crescent, and is very nosy about her neighbours, to the extent she goes through their rubbish. She is also a self-confessed sociopath who believes in administering small secret punishments to people who offend her sense of justice. And she’s decided to write her memoirs.

When a neighbour suffers a stroke and ends up in a care home, Merton gets the keys to her home to keep an eye on it. This gives her a really good chance to snoop. She visits the neighbour in the care home, and over time the two women develop an unlikely relationship.

The cover blurb refers to the book’s hilarity, sharp observations and brilliant acerbic satirical wit, but Merton is such an unpleasant creature the book is hard to read. On page 39 Merton says: “I hope my ‘confessions’, recounting all my own unpleasant stuff, are not becoming unbearable, because I still have a long way to go…”

Oh dear. Presumably she gets her come-uppance eventually, but do I care enough to press on?

The Couple at the Table, by Sophie Hannah (Hodder & Stoughton)

Six couples are staying at an exclusive honeymoon resort when one woman gets a note of warning: “Beware of the couple at the table nearest to yours.” But the tables are equidistant. What can it mean?

Later however Jane Brinkwood is found stabbed twice, and police have no leads. Could it have been Lucy, whose husband William left her for Jane? Could it have been William? Or was it a stranger who broke into the complex? But no one has been picked up on the security cameras.

This looks like fun.


Greenlights – your journal, your journey, by Matthew McConaughey (Headline)

Matthew McConaughey is an Oscar-winning American actor who, a few years ago, took a couple of months off to write a memoir based on diaries and journals he had kept from the age of 14. He described it as a collection of “stories, prayers, poems, people and places and a whole bunch of bumper stickers”, one of which read: “Sometimes the guest list needs to be for one. You.”

It was published in October 2020, debuting  at No 1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Reviews have been mixed, from “stuffed with vaporous, circular proverbs” to “truly entertaining”.

When I chose this volume from the Exclusive Books top books for March, I hadn’t realised the memoir was two years old. I thought I was getting the memoir – what I got was essentially an empty journal, with handy aphorisms perched on blank pages, such as: “Knowin the truth, seein the truth, tellin the truth are all different experiences. What’s a truth you know, a truth you’ve seen, and a truth you tell? What’s a truth you live by?”

In his introduction to this empty journal, he says his journals helped him to understand who he was now, and who he wanted to be tomorrow. He adds: “This is your journal. This is your story. Write it. Just keep livin.”

Not sure what the Gs at the end of words have done to offend him.

Thrown Among the Bones – My life in fiction, by Patricia Schonstein (African Sun Press)

Acclaimed Cape Town author Patricia Schonstein has ventured away from fiction in this memoir in which she provides the backstory to her seven novels, which include Skyline, about Long Street, The Apothecary’s Daughter, A Quilt of Dreams and the brilliant The Inn at Helsvlakte. The text is accompanied, in the form of endnotes, with brief extracts from the novels.

In an author’s note she writes: “They illustrate how my own life, together with the ficitious worlds I’ve fabricated, correspond with each other, acting as mirrors, allowing deconstruction and reconstruction of real events, in order to fathom the complex arena into which I was born.”

She had some rich material to work from: born to a Jewish Holocaust escapee and an Italian Catholic mother, she ended up being educated in a Dominican convent in what was then Rhodesia.

She writes: “These two great religions would predispose me to seeing life through the eyes of a magic-realist. Their repertoire would alert me to the polarities of Heaven and the Underworld, Light and Dark, Angels and Demons, the Real and the Preposterous.”

This looks fascinating.

Death on the Trans-Siberian Express, by C J Farrington (Constable)

I mentioned this novel last month before I’d read it and now I have. It has a great deal of charm and humour, but I’m afraid I got bogged down in the minutiae of the plot, and I think the plethora of Russian names didn’t help.

But there were two bits that I thought were brilliant, and want to share them.

The first sees the hero, Olga, being driven home on snowy roads by Glazkov, who has been drinking. “But that wasn’t unusual on a Saturday in Kemerovo Province. The joke was that you could spot drunk drivers because they drove in a straight line; the sober ones wove from side to side to avoid the potholes.”

And then in the pub Fyodor the Dreamer ponders which is a better system of dictatorship: a tsar or an all-powerful president. When his drinking mates tell him they don’t need some “hoity-toity ponce in a crown” telling them what to do, he counters: “But that’s exactly what Russians do need.”

Fyodor explains the problem is that presidents are chosen by election, which gives them legitimacy. “Presidents can do anything they like, because it’s the will of the people. But a tsar has to remember … what happened at the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, when the Romanovs perished from the Earth. A tsar, in short, has to tread carefully. Can you say the same of our glorious President Putin?”

This was of course written well before the events in the Ukraine.

Thrown Among the Bones, by Patricia Schonstein (African Sun Press)