Monthly Archives: April 2022

‘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