Monthly Archives: November 2021

Love and violence leave reader torn

Review: Vivien Horler

The Heart is the Size of a Fist, by PP Fourie (Kwela)

It was only when I sat down to write this review that I noticed below the title on the cover the works: “A novel”.

I had assumed the entire book was a truthful memoir of growing up in a home of violence and addiction. I then googled the book and found an interview Professor PP Fourie gave the SABC about the work, in which he described it as “auto-fiction” and confirmed it was semi-autobiographical.

It certainly is a searing depiction of the life of an Afrikaans child, Paul, whose father is abusive, a drunk, violent to his mother and also emotionally cruel. He says his father mostly ignored him, but would use him as a way of getting at his mother. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for November

Bedside table November

These are among the books that have landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later.

Shackleton – a biography, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

To write about hell, it helps if you have been there, says Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the introduction to this biography of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. And Fiennes certainly has: as he points out, no previous Shackleton biographer has man-hauled a heavy sledge load through the great crevasse fields of the Beardmore Glacier, or walked a thousand miles on poisoned feet. Fiennes say he wrote this book because he often disagreed with statements in the many books and films about Shackleton and his amazing exploits, unparalleled leadership and unflinching courage. The first book I read about Shackleton’s Endurance adventure was South, his own account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 to 1917. It is gripping stuff, even in the formal, rather stuffy language of the time. I am very much looking forward to reading this biography.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers (Hutchinson Heinemann)

This novel was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize (won by South Africa’s Damon Galgut). It tells the story of a scientist, Theo Byrne, who has devised a way to search for life on planets light years away. But he is also the father of nine-year-old Richard, clever and funny, but troubled, and who is facing expulsion from school for hitting a friend in the face with a coffee flask. Theo’s options are to put Richard on powerful drugs, or to take him to other planets in a bid to help save the one we have. Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous novel The Overstory, which was also shortlisted for the Booker, prompting Barak Obama to comment: “It changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it… It changed how I see things and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

The Heron’s Cry, by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)

I love Ann Cleeves’s police procedurals, both the Jimmy Perez series set on the Shetlands, and the Vera Stanhope series set mainly in the North Pennines. And I loved both TV series too. The Heron’s Cry features Cleeves’s new detective, Matthew Venn – who debuted in The Long Call – and is set in North Devon. A group of artists have their idyll ruined by the murder of Dr Nigel Yeo. His daughter Eve is a glass blower, and the murder weapon is a shard of glass from one of her vases. It turns out Eve is a close friend of Venn’s husband, and he has to tread carefully in his investigation. And then another body turns up, killed in a similar way.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

Critical but, Stable, by Angela Makholwa  (Macmillan)

This local novel begins with a man looking at the body of his lover in bed. She was so warm, so full of passion, and now so still. Whom should he call? The ambulance? No, too late. The police? No, never. Her husband? Oh shit. Three families are living the high life in fancy homes, all members of the Khula Society, a social club with investment benefits. But under the glitz things are not what they seem. And now this death may change everything. Angela Makholwa writes gripping psychological thrillers. This novel was first published last year, was longlisted for the Sunday Times/ CNA Fiction Literary Award for 2021, and has now been published in paperback. I do feel the comma in the title is in the wrong place.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

Rise, by Siya Kolisi with Boris Starling (HarperCollins)

Did Siya Kolisi’s yellow card cost the Springboks the match against the Lions at Twickenham on November 20? Maybe it did, but Siya Kolisi has been a Springbok hero, becoming the first black man to captain the team in 128 years and leading SA to victory at the Rugby World Cup in 2019. Yet he grew up in poverty, being born on the last day of apartheid, and spent much of his primary school period in Zwide in the Eastern Cape hungry. He started hanging out with some older boys, drinking, smoking weed and sniffing petrol. And then rugby saved him. He became attached to the African Bombers club, as a junior player, water boy, and odd-job boy.  He attributes his early success to coach Eric Songwiqi, the first positive male role model in his life. At 11 he was good enough to be selected for the Eastern Province Under-12 squad to play at a provincial tournament in Mossel Bay. There he was spotted a teacher at Grey College junior school in Port Elizabeth, won a full scholarship for his next six years of school – and the rest is history. He writes: “A good job for kids from Emsengeni (Primary, his school) was being a taxi driver. For Grey boys, the sky was the limit: they could be lawyers, doctors, businessmen. Even Springboks.”

  • This was one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for October.

A Taste for Life – How the Spur legend was born, by Allen Ambor

I once got a job as a waitress at the Golden Spur in Dean Street in Newlands. The first shift was technically “training”, and they paid me R1 (this was a while ago). I never went back – and I never waitressed again. But millions of students do, and it has been a lifeline for them. The Golden Spur was the first in Allen Amber’s empire, opening in 1967, trading until December last year when Covid-19 did for it. This is the inside story of one of Cape Town’s first steakhouses, how franchising took off, how the menu was designed and how Allen Ambor, aged just 26, would tell diners his aunt and uncle were in the kitchen to create the false but reassuring impression it was a family business. He also reveals a few secrets, such as playing the Four Tops’s Reach Out (I’ll be There) at the height of the Saturday night rush. “Customers would chew to the beat,” he confides, “and it helped turn tables.”


She might as well have been burnt at the stake

Review: Beverley Roos-Muller

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy, by Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Jonathan Ball)

Ethel Rosenberg’s story was a cruel, cold war tragedy. She remains the only American woman ever to be executed for a crime other than murder, yet she was innocent; and that continues, rightly, to haunt us.

She was sacrificed in the era of the 1950s anti-Communist and anti-Semitic reign of terror by McCarthyism, not very different to the fear-mongering mob mentality that dominates parts of that country even today.

This powerful book by Anna Sebba covers the Rosenberg story with efficient, chilling clarity. Ethel was born in 1915 in an America full of new immigrants from Europe, many of them Jewish, many of them fleeing pogroms and dictatorships, and yearning for a new world of equality and opportunity. It was not at all unusual, in a world struggling to make sense of World War 1, to look towards a different way of living: to support Communist ideals, whether in Oxford or New York, was neither unusual at the time nor – importantly – was it illegal. Continue reading

Le Carré’s swansong may be one of his best


Review: Archie Henderson

Silverview, by John le Carré (Penguin Random House)

When the Cold War ended, some of his readers wondered if John le Carré would become redundant. But one of the world’s best spy novelists reinvented himself quickly, taking on a variety of villains – from arms dealers to shameless earth polluters.

The conflict between the West and the Muslim world and the disintegration of the Soviet empire became convenient backdrops for books far removed from his masterpieces like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

With Silverview, Le Carré is back in the great game. One of the characters is almost a re-creation of his finest character, George Smiley. Stewart Proctor, a renowned spy hunter in Britain’s Secret Service, even believes he is being cuckolded, just like dear old George. Like many of Le Carré’s themes, this novel is also one of betrayal. Continue reading

Thoughtful memoir of the making of a white Zulu

Review: Vivien Horler

Scatterling of Africa – My early years, by Johnny Clegg (Macmillan)

They are the scatterlings of Africa/ Each uprooted one/ On the road to Phelamanga/ Where the world began

The world of Johnny Clegg, as we know him, began not on the road to Phelamanga – which is apparently a name made up to suit the rhythm of the line – but one evening in the working class Joburg suburb of Bellvue.

It was 1967, Clegg was 14, and his mother had sent him to the corner café to buy bread and milk. Outside the café a young Zulu man was playing his guitar with what Clegg describes as a complicated rhythmic picking line.

At the time Clegg was learning to play classical guitar, but as he watched the young man he realised his guitar was tuned differently and he played with a unique finger-picking style, “foreign, metallic and urgent at the same time”.

Clegg asked the man if he would teach him, but he laughed and said: “Too hard for you.” Clegg persisted, the guy mulled it over, and said okay.

“In that moment, beneath the flickering neon light outside the café … in Bellevue, Johannesburg, my life changed. I had taken the first step on the road to becoming a maskandi Zulu street musician.” Continue reading

Breaking news: SA’s Damon Galgut wins the Booker Prize

SOUTH African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut has won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise.

This was announced at a ceremony at the BBC Radio Theatre in London on November 3. He wins £50 000 (about R1.04million).

The Promise is a family saga set on a smallholding in Pretoria – Galgut’s home town – and is told over 40 years through four family funerals. The story revolves around a promise made by the family matriarch to a domestic worker that she will be given title to the home she lives in.

Galgut was previously shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 for his novel The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room.

The other shortlisted authors were Americans Richard Powers for Bewilderment, Maggie Shipstead for her fabulous Great Circle, Patricia Lockwood for No One is Talking about This; Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam for A Passage North, and British Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed for The Fortune Men.

Chair of the judges Maya Jasanoff described The Promise as a “tour de force”. “It combines an extraordinary story with rich themes – the history of the last 40 years in South Africa – in an incredibly well-wrought package.

“It manages to pull together the qualities of great storytelling, it has great ideas, it’s a book that has a lot to chew on, with remarkable attention to structure and literary style.”

Rebecca Jones, the BBC’s arts correspondent, describes The Promise as “an excellent winner” and “outstanding book”.

“On the one hand it is a gripping saga, following the decline and fall of a white South African family over four decades. It is packed with incident – sex, drugs, shootings – and there is drama, discord and death. But there is also plenty of unexpected comedy to lighten the mood. It made me laugh.

“On the other hand, through the lens of this one family, The Promise also deftly tells the story of South Africa and its troubled transition from apartheid state to multi-racial democracy. So it is rich with layers and yet it is compact, with fewer than 300 pages.”

I thought it was a very bleak tale.

Galgut becomes the third South African to win the prestigious fiction prize, after JM Coetzee (who won it twice, as well as the Nobel Prize for literature) and Nadine Gordimer.  – Vivien Horler