A moving memoir of joy, pain and boundless love

Review: Vivien Horler

The Year of Facing Fire – a memoir, by Helena Kriel (MF Books Joburg/Jacana)

year of facing fireHelena Kriel gets about. When this memoir begins she has been commissioned to write the screenplay of a 1996 Hollywood film called Kama Sutra, and goes to India to do research.

Many years later she is the founder of Baby Rhino Rescue, an organisation with two sanctuaries that is trying to save rhinos from extinction. She divides her time between Hollywood and South Africa, “is happiest when in the middle of nowhere with just a rhino or hippo for company”,  and according to the cover blurb, “facilitates adventures through India”.

None of which is the focus of this memoir – the focus of this memoir is love.

Kriel comes from an atypical, non-observant Joburg Jewish family. Her father, Dr Kriel, smoked three packs of Camels a day and died of lung cancer. Her mother is a writer, beautiful and tough; her sister lives in a temple in India with her SA-born Indian husband; one brother, the beautiful Evan, 29, is gay, had something of a dissolute youth in clubs but is now a reformed character who is studying with a rabbi; and her second brother dives with sharks in Mozambique.

At the beginning of this memoir Evan is in hospital with scepticaemia, and is expected to die at any moment. In addition, Kriel discovers for the first time Evan is HIV positive – this is before AZT – a fact that has been deliberately kept from her and her younger siblings so they could live their lives “undisturbed”.

Kriel prays, then sits down next to her unconscious brother’s hospital bed, takes his hand and starts talking to him. “We’re on a tropical beach. It is paradise here. The sea is calm and turquoise…there are dolphins around… fireflies.”

Evan’s eyes are rolled back in his head, but as she speaks his brown irises slide back into view. Kriel and her mother go home, and early the next morning the hospital rings. Evan is sitting up in bed – it is a miracle.

Later he describes how an angel told him about being on a beach with dolphins and fireflies. He came back.

And so begins the struggle to keep Evan alive. He is as weak as a kitten, and every morning Kriel goes into his room early to make sure he has made it through the night.

As he gets stronger, life starts to go back to normal. Kriel goes off to India, her sister returns to South Africa with her husband and toddler son, the younger brother comes home from Mozambique.

Kriel speaks to wise people in India who preach the value of surrender, to love, to sex – it’s the Kama Sutra, remember – and to death.

Evan is strong enough to go back to teaching and writes long and enriching letters to Kriel in India. Then Kriel gets a message to call home – this is before cellphones – and the news is not good. Kriel flies home.

And so follows a year of highs and lows. We meet friends of the family, Evan’s partner Dietmar, a German mechanic of whom Evan’s mother does not approve, the dangerous fruit-and-veg man who Kriel goes out with a few times and practises a touch of S&M. She also meets Adam, a friend of Evan’s to whom she is drawn.

Evan thought his sister was an angel; she certainly writes like one. She describes a year of joy and pain in the most lyrical of language. The garden of the family home is a source of happiness and solace. Joburg is a character in this memoir – the beggars, the prostitutes, the Highveld storms.

No family can go through what the Kriels go through and emerge the same. Many times their lives are hellish, and yet they reach out, bond with one another, and learn how to surrender.

This is a moving story of family, strength and boundless love.




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