Monthly Archives: November 2023

Discovering the last voice of the dead

Review: Vivien Horler

Blood has a Voice – Stories from the autopsy table, by Hestelle van Staden (Tafelberg)

Hestelle van Staden describes herself as a “normal, 40-something-year-old suburban Afrikaans-speaking woman” with two children, and yet she has a job she describes as “not always easy or nice”.

Well, no. She’s a forensic pathologist, and knew from when she was at high school in Pretoria what career she wanted to pursue. She credits Patricia Cornwell and her Kay Scarpetta books for inspiring her. Such was her enthusiasm for her job that on her first day at work she felt “like a kid in a candy store”.

Since then she was performed more than 7 000 autopsies, one of them on the reggae star Lucky Dube, who was shot dead in a hijacking in Johannesburg in 2007. She also testified for the state in the later murder trial. Continue reading

Potsdam: to Stalin the spoils

Review: Archie Henderson

Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe, by Michael Neiberg (Basic Books)

Potsdam, a city 25km south-west of Berlin, is a charming place of palaces, lakes, rivers, and green space with only a quarter of the area inhabited by its 183,000 residents. On a cold, blustery day, Michael Neiberg roamed the city and was enchanted, but also disappointed. 

Neiberg is a military civilian who teaches history at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and for 17 days in the summer of 1945 Potsdam was centre in the history of World War 2. But nowhere could Neiberg find any books about the history of the city and even elsewhere the offerings were meagre. So, he wrote one himself. Continue reading

Just because you CAN do something, should you?

Review: Vivien Horler

The Seventh Son, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)

If you Google the significance of “the seventh son” in folklore, you find that from the 16th century a seventh son was believed to have psychic powers.

Seth, the boy and young man at the centre of this startling tale, does seem have such powers, but he is an only child and the identity of his father is a mystery. He is however the seventh subject in a bizarre scientific experiment.

At the beginning of this story, set slightly ahead of the present in 2030, Talissa Adam is a young American post-doc who is looking for a job. Her area is the “distant but discoverable human past”.

A Boston institute offers her a post, but there’s a catch – she will have to fund her first year herself. And there is no money for that. Continue reading

Who knows the secrets a mild-mannered neighbour might have?

Review: Vivien Horler

All the Broken Places, by John Boyne (Penguin Books)

Gretel Fernsby is a widow in her 90s, living in a pleasant flat in London’s Mayfair, and leading an ordered life. She keeps herself to herself, has few friends and rarely speaks of her past.

Gretel has a secret, which she has spent all her life trying to hide. She was born in Berlin before the outbreak of World War II, but tells the few people who might need to know that she had grown up in France.

This is because she is “the devil’s daughter”, and even 80 years on she suspects if her past were uncovered, it would be all over the newspapers. Continue reading