Monthly Archives: November 2020

What would your friends do to save your life?

Review: Vivien Horler

Contacts, by Mark Watson (HarperCollins/Jonathan Ball)

A suicide note is something you can write in advance of your actual death and then leave it where it will be found later. James, however, decides to send a text message, and there is a problem with that: you can’t press “send” when you’re dead.

In this bittersweet novel, James is a relatively young man whose life (and his body) have gone pear-shaped. His wife has left him for another man, his best friend, who is also his boss, has fired him, and they’re no longer speaking.

He’s found a new job in a railway ticket office and hates it. He is a kind man who likes to cultivate relationships with people, but there’s not much opportunity for that when you’re selling them a second-class return to Southampton.

He was close to his dad, who has died, and was close to his sister, but they’ve fallen out too. He shares a flat with a nice enough young waitress called Steffi, but they come and go with little in the way of friendship.

So James decides to kill himself, and sends his 158 contacts his suicide note. Continue reading

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