Finding your voice

Vivien Horler

RW Johnson

A writer’s voice – that’s a tricky subject to tackle or even define.

Voice is the subject of the seventh module of the non-fiction writing course I’m doing under the auspices of crime writer, memoirist and biographer Mike Nicol. And even he, vastly experienced writer that he is, has some difficulty pinning down the concept of “voice”.

“What do we mean when we talk about a writer’s voice and how does this affect your writing? And then if I go on to say that this voice is largely dependent on the tone of your prose, you might say, enough now.”

Well, quite. Voice and tone, he says, are the building blocks of style.

“Voice” is the voice of someone with something to say about the world. It’s hard to figure out one’s own voice – the module assignment was to find a piece of our own writing and then analyse it.

But perhaps it’s easier when you’re reading someone else’s non-fiction. I was mildly affronted by the preface of commentator RW Johnson’s latest book Foreign Native. He had, he says, written and published, in London, a memoir about his time at Oxford University.

He then suggested his local publisher, Jonathan Ball, might like to bring out a South African edition.

This is the sentence that got me: “Jonathan read the book and liked it, but felt that Oxford was too far away from the usually more parochial concerns of South African readers.”

Well, that puts us japies in our place.

So far in the course, titled Writing Reality, we have looked at how to write stories, how to introduce characters (and make them characters), how to describe current events, how to draft scenes, and – importantly – how to write dialogue. Dialogue is what brings writing and characters to life. Or as Tom Wolfe puts it (as quoted in Nicol’s course notes: “…realistic dialogue involves the reader more completely than any other single device. It also establishes and defines character more quickly and effectively than any other single device”.

Back to voice. It emerges, says Nicol, from tone, lexicon and grammar. Sentence length is important. Voice and tone create style.

It’s all a touch nebulous – but I can recognise it when I see it, in RW Johnson’s writing at any rate. And what is Johnson’s voice?  It is smug, that’s what it is.

* For more information on Nicol’s courses (which include a fiction writing course, see or email him on






Zimbabwean activist and writer makes Booker 2020 shortlist

Vivien Horler

Tsitsi Dangarembga

So Hilary Mantel is not going to make history by winning the Booker Prize three times.

I’m a bit disappointed – I thought all three novels about Thomas Cromwell: Wolf  Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light, were absorbing, often terrifying and utterly brilliant.

Not even to get on to the shortlist for the 2020 Booker! I think she wuz robbed.

But thriller writer Lee Child, who was on the panel of judges, was quoted in The Guardian saying of The Mirror & the Light: “It is an absolutely wonderful novel, there’s no question about it. It’s a trilogy which will live forever. But as good as it was, there were some books which were better.”

Another two international novelists whose books failed to make the cut were Anne Tyler with Redhead by the Side of the Road, and Colum McCann for Apeirogon.

But closer to home, acclaimed Zimbabwean writer and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga is in with a chance to win the prize for her for This Mournable Body.  This is the third in a trilogy which includes Nervous Conditions (1988), named by the BBC as one of the 100 books that shaped the world, and The Book of Not, published in 2006. Continue reading

Clever columnist turns up the heat

Review: Vivien Horler

Is it Me or is it Getting Hot in Here? Great expectations and boiling frogs in South Africa.  By Tom Eaton (Tafelberg)

I worry about Tom Eaton’s blood pressure.

He’s a delightfully clever columnist and commentator, usually spot on, nuanced and often hilarious. Here’s an example, taken from his column in Times Select on Friday, September 11.

Referring to the disaster that is municipal politics in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), he says the appalling former mayor Mongameli Bobani managed “to achieve what almost no other politician in modern SA has, uniting the ANC, DA, ACDP, Cope, AIC and Patriotic Alliance in a motion of no confidence”.

The EFF however abstained from the vote, “perhaps because it had already flip-flopped several times that morning and was afraid of putting out its back”. Continue reading

Culinary legacy of the old SAR & H

Review: Vivien Horler

Loves & Miracles of Pistola, by Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin)

For more than 60 years people have been flocking to La Perla Restaurant, first in the city centre and since 1969 in Sea Point.

Its existence – and that of many other Italian restaurants in South Africa – springs from a strange and almost forgotten episode in South Africa history, one exploited by journalist, food writer and now novelist Hilary Prendini Toffoli.

In the prologue to the delightful Loves & Miracles of Pistola, she explains that in the 1950s in apartheid South Africa, the SA Railways had a problem. They needed stewards for their long-distance passenger train service, which in those days criss-crossed the country and took travellers into neighbouring countries too. Continue reading

Absorbing novel about ground-breaking author

Review: Vivien Horler

The Lodger, by Louisa Treger (Bloomsbury Reader/ Jonathan Ball)

In an author’s note at the end of  The Lodger, Louisa Treger writes that Dorothy Richardson, on whose life this novel is based, died in poverty and obscurity in an old age home in 1957.

A visitor was told Richardson suffered from delusions, believing she was a famous writer. Surprised, the visitor responded: “She is a famous writer!”

It turns out she was one of the early innovators of “stream of consciousness” writing, “which imitated the movement of the female mind”.

In a review of Richardson’s Revolving Lights in 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote: “Dorothy Richardson has invented … a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes…” Continue reading

Learning to write – 200 words at a time

Vivien Horler

Mike Nicol

I have to write 200 words of description for my assignment for my writing course this week.

“Imagine that sunset that stunned you or catching a wave on an early morning surf or a tense hang-gliding moment, or an afternoon at a waterhole in the bush …” instructs Mike Nicol, top SA crime writer, biographer and memoir-writer who is running the course.

“Or something completely different: describe entering a foreign city for the first time; or moving into a new home; arriving at a holiday destination.”

In 200 words? It’s not easy. But it’s not meant to be.

In fact I have an MA in creative writing, and my thesis scored good marks, so why am I doing Mike’s course on Writing Reality – essentially narrative non-fiction writing?

Because as a friend briskly pointed out, a thesis is not a book. So I’ve been hoping to learn some skills, how to round out what I’ve written, how to make it live and breathe and connect to the reader. Continue reading

Covid has kicked rugby into touch

Review: Archie Henderson

Unholy Union – When rugby collided with the modern world, by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans (Constable)

Never mind the mindless ban on booze or smokes, a winter without rugby has been bloody awful. Our rugby season has been cold, bleak and miserable without anything or anyone to cheer for from the terraces or the TV couch.

As if that were not bad enough, there might be little to cheer about even when this virus is overwhelmed, if it ever is. The game we love could be very different and a much-loved part of it might even have begun to disappear.

When Michael Aylwin, a rugby writer on Britain’s Guardian newspaper, collaborated with Mark Evans, a former CEO of Harlequins RFC in England, to write this book, Covid-19 was not even on the horizon. Now it’s on the touchline, and it could change everything. Continue reading

What happens when the grownups can’t play nice?

Review: Vivien Horler

Playing Nice, by JP Delaney (Quercus/ Jonathan Ball)

It has to be one of a parent’s worst nightmares: a man arrives at your front door to tell you he has DNA evidence to prove that your toddler son is actually his and he has yours – that the babies were swopped at birth in a hospital mix-up.

Pete Riley is an altogether nice guy, a former London journalist who has become a house husband while his wife Maddie has a high-powered job in advertising. Their son Theo, 2, is a bit of a wild boy who is in trouble at nursery school for hitting another child, but Pete adores him.

And then one day Miles Lambert, accompanied by a private detective, arrives on Pete’s doorstep with the devastating news. The detective obtained a sample of Theo’s DNA from his sippy cup, which had gone missing from his nursery school. There is no doubt that Theo is Miles’s son.

In his horror Pete says: “Jesus. You tested my son’s DNA without my permission – “ to which Miles replies: “Well, technically my son. But yes…” Continue reading

Love shines through story of vicious Italian World War II battle

Review: Vivien Horler

The Sound of the Hours, by Karen Campbell (Bloomsbury)

Google the Battle of Garfagnana and Wikipedia gives you a dispassionate description of a brief, devastating battle around Christmas 1944 among villages and towns in the Tuscan Alps. There are references to generals and tanks and casualties, to Allied and Axis soldiers.

But there is nothing about the people who lived in those villages, whose lives were interrupted and then overturned as the tide of war swept through their ancient stone towns, woods, valleys and hills.

A family from the village of Catagnana, in the hills above the town of Barga, are front and centre of this wonderful novel by Karen Campbell, which takes its title from the bells that ring out from the region’s churches, sounding the hours. Continue reading

A peaceful transition to democracy? No, it wasn’t


Review: Vivien Horler

Undeniable: Memoir of a covert war, by Philippa Garson (Jacana)

Everyone over the age of 30 or so remembers where we were the day FW de Klerk unbanned the liberation movements, the day just over a week later when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the day nearly four years later when we took part in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

It was a heady period, the time of the Rainbow Nation, when our new multi-coloured flag replaced the unloved (by most South Africans) Oranje Blanje Blou, and when an ecstatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced the recently elected President Mandela to a crowd on the Grand Parade, saying excitedly: “Here he is! Our president – brand new, out of the box!”

It was South Africa’s miracle to have avoided civil war and the bloodbath that had been predicted for years, and emerge into the sunlit uplands of freedom.

Well, 26 years later we know how that turned out. But it did seem pretty miraculous at the time. Continue reading