THESE are among the trove of books that arrived on my desk this month. Most have not yet been read. Some will be reviewed in full later. The top four are from Exclusive Books’s top reads for October. – Vivien Horler
Farm Killings in South Africa, by Nechama Brodie (Kwela Books)
Killings on farms account for less than half a percent of all murders reported in SA every year, and yet they are freighted with disproportionate weight in the national narrative on violence.
Having trawled through innumerable news reports, data, law cases and expert research about violence on farms, journalist Dr Nechama Brodie tells us that between April 2020 and March 2021 the police recorded 19 972 murders across the country – a terrifying average of 55 a day.
Yet farm murders make up a tiny proportion of violent acts. So why write a book on the subject, Brodie asks.
She describes the murder of 21-year-old farm manager Brendin Horner near Senekal on October 1, 2020 as a flashpoint, “a flare that highlighted the deepest fissures carved out by rage and simmering anger, a conflict about who belonged, about who got to feel safe”.
Brodie has been working on what she calls a broad homicide research project for almost 10 years, only to discover the growing claims of “white genocide” in SA were simply not true.
She discusses how South Africans see violence and each other, “and it imagines what we might learn if we took off the blinkers of our own prejudices and expectations and tried to understand these crimes as they are, not as politicians or social media accounts proclaim them to be”.
The very first section, which refers to Horner’s killing and then summarises the direction the book is going, is rather dry, but persevere – the second section about the land, and how white farming colonists removed San, Khoena (apparently the term Khoi is no longer used) and later other black land occupiers, is fascinating.
She sums up this section: “As a starting point to discussing the nature of violence and death on farms in South Africa, we need to dispense with the singular narrative of heroic pioneers and acknowledge that in their very creation, farms began as places of violence.”
The Quality of Mercy, by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (Penguin Books)
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean-born writer of dazzling accomplishment. She won the Sunday Times fiction prize in 2019 for the bestseller The Theory of Flight. She is a winner of Yale University’s 2022 Windham Campbell prize, is a writer, filmmaker and an academic with a PhD from Stanford University, and directed and edited the award-winning short film Graffiti.
The Quality of Mercy is the third in a trilogy, starting with The Theory of Flight (now a school setwork) and followed by The History of Man, but the blurb on the cover says this novel stands alone as it describes the history of a country moving from a colonial to a postcolonial state.
It tells the story of Spokes Moloi, a policeman who is about to retire and whose final crime investigation involves the possible murder of Emil Coetzee, head of the sinister Organisation of Domestic Affairs, who disappears on the day a ceasefire is declared and independence is on the horizon.
Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson Heinemann)
According to Wikipedia, England’s Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660 was an act of parliament providing a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English civil war and Commonwealth period, with the exception of people who had committed certain crimes including piracy, buggery, rape and witchcraft, and those named in the act as having been involved in the killing of King Charles I.
In this historical novel, that same year Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe cross the Atlantic on the run, wanted for the murder of the former king. In terms of the Act of Oblivion they have been found guilty in absentia in London of high treason.
One Robert Nayler, the Privy Council’s secretary of the regicide committee, is ordered to track down the fugitives, dead or alive.
This is a thriller describing a chase and an epic journey across continents.
In an author’s note Robert Harris says it is based on a true story about the greatest manhunt of the 17th century across New England. Events, dates and locations are accurate, and almost every character is real, apart from Richard Nayler.
“I suspect there must have been such a person – you cannot sustain a manhunt without a manhunter – but whoever he was, his identity is lost to history,” writes Harris.
This looks like a cracker.
The Last Gift of the Master Artists, by Ben Okri (Head of Zeus)
This novel by Booker Prize-winning Nigerian-born Ben Okri has an unusual history. Set just before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, it was first published in 2007 as Starbook, but has over more than decade been reworked by Okri.
The cover blurb explains: “He has sought to bring to it a greater simplicity, to make the political and historical implications of the story clearer…. This is a work still more dazzling and unforgettable, and more relevant to our world than ever before.”
It begins with the meeting of a couple on a riverbank in Africa, who have no idea their world and culture are about to end. On the horizon, beautiful ships with white sails are waiting.
Bamboozled – In search of joy in a world gone mad, by Melinda Ferguson (Melinda Ferguson Books)
I mentioned this memoir last month, but at that stage I hadn’t read it. Now I have.
It starts off promisingly: writer, writing coach, publisher, recovering addict and petrol head Melinda Ferguson finds the pandemic lockdown difficult, depressing and disruptive, and decides she needs to move out of the city and find a home in the mountains.
One day, house-hunting near Tulbagh she finds it, on a small exclusive estate at the end of a long gravel road. It has views forever and is perfect. Her offer is accepted.
But just days before transfer, her neighbour, whom she has not met, is strangled in the house just two doors from hers. And her immediate neighbours are tied up and robbed, although not hurt.
Ferguson is appalled and frightened, and wonders if a neighbour’s murder is grounds to cancel a sale.
Ferguson has written several other books, mining for copy her unhappy childhood, the death of her father when she was four, her poisonous relationship with her alcoholic mother, and her own appalling descent into addiction, during which she took crack and heroin when pregnant with her sons.
Eventually her mother-in-law steps in, sends her husband for rehab and removes the two small boys. Ferguson spirals into a horror story of the drug dens of Hillbrow, always comforting herself with the thought that when it gets too bad she can jump down the middle of the Ponte Tower.
But her own family step in, and she is eventually able to shake her habit.
Roughly 20 years later, living in Cape Town with her partner, Soul-Mat, she starts taking psilocybin mushrooms – reportedly not addictive – and is liberated by what they teach her.
Doors that have remained stubbornly shut through years of 12-Step meetings and therapy suddenly open in a blast of understanding. Issues become clear.
And then, quite frankly, she goes off-piste – in my humble opinion anyway. Governments have too much power, and populations around the world are battling to take it back. People like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are persecuted for telling the people the truth.
Popular uprisings like the Arab Spring and others are ruthlessly crushed. The people are becoming too noisy, too clever, too powerful.
And then comes this paragraph: “So – #DeepBreath – could it be possible that a ‘deadly virus’ was allowed to escape a lab in Wuhan ‘by accident’, precipitating a global lockdown? Creating a scenario in which emergency laws could be introduced, people’s movement could be restricted, and new surveillance and medical legislation could be instituted? Extreme measures that granted unprecedented control over all of us, to those who were pulling the strings of our world in order to re-establish and ‘reset’ the power ‘balance’?”
Conceding that the virus obviously did exist and had killed people, she says this is not the point…. “Perhaps I was really losing the plot, but in my desperation for clarity and answers, this notion felt entirely plausible…”
In short, we’ve all been bamboozled.
Melinda Ferguson publishes her own books. Would anyone else?