Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Diary extracts (2008)

Wednesday, April 9 2008

Aboard MV Mozart, Danube River

Gliding through Europe on the MV Mozart, on the Danube, on another press trip. Making our way toward Budapest, the Danube greeny-grey rather than its fabled blue. I sampled Munich in two days, saw Dachau, boarded the boat, peeked into the village of Durnstein, tasted Vienna in the form of a Sacher torte. And now, gliding toward Budapest, formerly a place name on a map, now a place I’m going to be able to name, say I saw.

I’m a million miles from home, making my way through a gentle, peaceful Europe where it’s safe to walk around at night, where you catch trains and buses to go home, and they run on time. Trying to explain home to the people who share my table at night in the dining room is like trying to explain Mars to earthlings. “So do you catch the train into town?” asked Roger, the English investment banker. And how could I begin to explain Johannesburg with its chaotic roads, the minibuses going where they like, the buses that are infrequent, if they come at all? The minibuses that are not state controlled, are often not road worthy with Coke bottles attached to steering wheels to hold brake fluid and screw drivers sometimes serving as steering wheels? Every time I open my mouth I feel like I’m telling tales, exaggerating or complaining. At dinner I drink bitter lemon (called dry lemon at home) and say how much I enjoy it, and say that I haven’t been able to get it for a while as we ran out of gas to make it. Or so I assume. Because we seem to be told regularly that we’ve run out of gas when you can’t find a brand of cold drink, or even sparkling mineral water.

Similarly I can’t explain the joke the SAA pilot made as we flew out of OR Tambo and the lights were, as usual, put off before we lifted into the air: “Load shedding is about to begin,” said the pilot, and those South Africans on board caught the joke and laughed wryly. How do you explain load shedding?

And so South Africa follows me here. People are interested in what’s going on. A Swedish woman on the Dachau tour asked me if it was dangerous to go out into the “woods” or “forest”. Knowing she meant the veld or the bush, I think, I said not really, as lodges are often protected by fences, and you can take guided walks with rangers, and they often carry guns. I did speak of the dangers of crime, however, and that tourists become victims as they aren’t aware of the dangers. A tourist went running along the beach at night and was raped. You can perhaps do this in Europe, go running on a beach at night, but you can’t do this in South Africa. So I said no, the animals weren’t dangerous as such, if you keep to designated areas, stay in a game drive vehicle. It was the people – although, along with that, there is a tremendous amount of friendliness and goodwill.

But of course your country does follow you. I walked the streets of Munich at night and it was fine and safe. Of course if anyone came too close, just trying to pass, I tensed automatically. And yes, thefts happen anywhere, but you can still do this in Europe. Stroll with your bag, an ordinary, not very amazing thing to do. And yet, it’s not something I’d ever do at home. In Johannesburg we drive from mall to mall. The level of fear, of threat to your body all the time, is unimaginable to Europeans.

And so the comparisons follow me through Europe. You expect the safety, the neat, quiet orderliness of Germany, of Europe, but still you can’t quite believe it. It feels comfortable to catch a cab from Munich airport one morning and then to suddenly realise how quiet, neat and orderly the streets are. When someone hoots you turn to look around around, because it’s all so unusual, it disrupts the serenity. It actually feels odd. And you wonder why someone has dared to put their hand on the hooter. And yet, it’s only leaving Munich that you suddenly realise there are no beggars and no hawkers at every robot. Again, how unusual.

There are beggars of course. Not everywhere. One at the main train station, a Gypsy-looking woman, face creased into pleading. A man on a street corner. Another sitting on a pavement in Vienna, a young man with long, brown hair, head bowed to the ground, yet with his hands outstretched, waiting. But they are seemingly, oddities, few enough not to be noticed. A mime artist dressed as Mozart, hands outstretched as you point your camera at him. Another form of begging, you could say, and he’d probably argue with you.

Munich. Beggars and casinos and strip clubs. Kebab shops on just about every corner. And the internet shop was run by Turks. I emailed South Africa listening to Turkish music, while pecking my way through a German keyboard. The z is where the y is, and I never did find the apostrophe. The Chinese ran cheap shops where I bought a 10 euro canvas bag. And sex saloons: a winking figure of a plastic woman, red lights flashing from an interior, Abba blaring out into the street. So many of them and the casinos too, seemingly open all the time. And on Sunday, as in apartheid South Africa, the shops are closed. You can only window shop. Only the kebab shops, restaurants, internet cafes are open.

One night I saw a young woman eating in an Asian restaurant, all by herself. Forking her food in a dimly-lit place, quite self-contained. Perhaps I glanced at her for a second only, and her partner or friend was simply in the toilet. And then again, perhaps not.

Budapest. The waters of the Danube are finally beginning to look blue if you look towards the distance. We’re docked in the heart of yet another old, grand European city, surrounded by famous buildings, history, a sense of proud grandeur. It’s a film set setting; you can’t help but be impressed.

Friday April 18 2008

Back home. Each journey throws up another nuance, reveals something different to you, or about you. Each journey highlights a particular place in your life, and each journey is ultimately about you, not the country you’re visiting or the city you’re wondering through. Seen at another time your experience is altered. I loved Spain when I visited three years ago, yet couldn’t wait to leave it when I visited last June, and this time I fell in love with Europe all over again.

Sunday May 25 2008

Glancing at a newspaper article this week: 20 percent of South Africans in the 18-44 age bracket are considering emigrating – that’s the prime of the working population.

Meanwhile xenophobic attacks have plagued the country for the past two weeks. They started in Gauteng, attacks on foreigners living in South Africa, spreading from the townships to Cleveland and Hillbrow last weekend, and then KwaZulu Natal and the Cape. The newspapers are full of images: Mozambicans, Malawians, Congolese and Zimbabweans fleeing the townships, blood pouring from their wounds. Fleeing to churches and police stations where makeshift tent cities are springing up. These people have lost everything: homes, shacks, possessions. Appeals for food, soap, underwear. The Mozambican government has been sending buses to transport them home. Looting of shops and homes. On TV I watched as police fired rubber bullets, roughing up looters who pillaged for food. Two men carting a looted fridge down the road in a mad hurry, doors opening as they hurried, plastic ice trays spilling out. You couldn’t help wondering who the fridge belonged to: a foreigner chased out of his or her home, a foreign-owned shop looted?

Images of the attacks have been flashed around the world. It feels like the 1980s again: the townships on fire, mobs marching, police firing. Town on Tuesday was eerily quiet; the Indian-owned shops near The Star’s building were shut. They did open again on Wednesday.

It took Mbeki days to make a statement about the attacks. And he still hasn’t visited Alexandra township where it all started. It took Morgan Tsvangerai to visit Alex.

The attacks were sparked by fears that immigrants are taking all the jobs away from local workers because foreigners are said to work for less money. Food prices are spiralling. Life is getting harder and unemployment is still (unofficially) at 40 percent. The government has wavered between condemning the attacks, saying they are not xenophobic in nature but are the work of criminals instead. And yet it’s foreigners being targeted, hounded, raced out of their homes. And the most chilling of all: two men necklaced in scenes even more reminiscent of the 80s. And more chilling: a woman laughing as the man burned with the tyre around his neck.

Sunday June 22 2008

Today is Michael’s birthday. Obviously this has been weighing on my mind. The other night I wrote two poems about him, “I’ll always miss dreaming my dreams with you” and “You’re only ten weeks old”. And then today I wrote a short story called, “Finally, a meeting”. About all the times I have imagined bumping into him: from sitting in Trafalgar Square, imagining him being there, say on holiday from Canada; to other times when I have met men who look like him, a training course recently, or a guide at Ichobezi Lodge, to other times I have fantasised about seeing him. This story takes it further, and imagines a meeting sometime in the future, when me as narrator, is in Canada and the new older Michael bumps into her. But she is now happily married. It’s too late now, to do what she’s always wanted to do. I hope it’s good. I enjoyed writing it – a “found” story in the sense that I hadn’t been planning or pondering such a piece.

Funny, or not so funny how he still continues to haunt and dominate me. I realise that at the time of the break up I think I decided I never wanted to be so hurt again. And so, to prevent being hurt, I never did open myself up as I did then, nor fall as heavily for the other men I have known since him. So I did what I set out to do then. It’s only by opening up that you get to experience the roller-coaster of love. It was like a death recovering from that breakup, I’m afraid I won’t survive another. And yet, people do survive.

Friday August 22 2008

I entered the POWA (People Opposing Woman Abuse) writing award. The story had to be about healing from abuse, the journey to healing. I edited 'Octopus Fingers' down to 2 500 words. Cutting the story nearly in half means really paring it down to its essentials. Does it work? It ends differently, and I took out the bit about the woman (based on my mother) never healing from the spousal abuse and I renamed it 'Crumbs'. A few months ago I took another look at it and decided it didn’t work and I must take it out of my MS collection of short stories. Rereading it today, really rereading it by having to prune it, I liked it, revised my decision. But it’s hard to be objective about your own work, to really judge it. And rereading it I thought that the theme of the story is how Hazel (my mother in disguise), doesn’t heal from the abuse, the experience. That’s the whole point of it. A sad point – that some people don’t recover but remain mired in the effects of the abuse, or a bad relationship. *

Sunday August 31 2008

Thinking back to the words used in my childhood, how usage changes not just within a person’s life, but within a few decades. As a child “cookies” were what the Americans called fairy cakes and are now referred to as cupcakes. Now I haven’t heard the word cookies used in years. When did cupcakes supplant cookies? And the word still exists – it’s what the Americans call what we refer to as biscuits.

And then there’s another foodstuff: pasta. At some point we stopped saying “Would you like spaghetti or macaroni?” and asked instead, “Would you like some pasta?”Only then do you choose whether you’ll be eating fettuccine or linguine or penne or whatever. Why the change? Again, who knows.

As a child I heard my mother referring to “rouge”. By the time I was using the stuff in my twenties, in the early 1990s, I referred to “blusher”. My mother still refers to ships and countries as “she”. I do a double take when she says something like, “America is a bully, she should stay out of the war.” She? I know what she means but in my generation’s use, I’d say something like, “The boat, it’s called the MV Mozart.” A boat, for me, is an it. A country even more so. English lost all its gender cases, but for these instances, and yet they have survived in my mother’s lexicon. But not in mine. How odd. Our language stretches and bounces back like elastic. Living, breathing, dynamic.

But what were to happen if English were a dying, vanishing language? Instead of flourishing, let’s pretend there are only a handful of elderly speakers left. When they die, the rich heritage of our literature, movies, music, idioms, dies with them. It’s an unutterably lonely feeling. To think if losing the language you’ve known since birth, loved and lived in. To think that your language dies with you: its unique sounds, its hard masculine character, its flexibility. And yes, it’s unimaginable to think this of English when it’s such an alive language, with life being breathed into it every day by its millions and billions of speakers. It pulses. And yet, this language death is happening to so many marginal languages, from Aboriginal languages, to Native American, to others that are clinging, Provencal, or look at Cornish, now clawing its way back with a few determined students learning it. For English speakers it’s unimaginable not being surrounded by our language. But contemplate it, imagine it. It feels lonely; it feels like you’re the last person left on planet earth. (And there are aliens out there.)

Monday September 22 2008

Dance of friendship. The uncertainty of it. I never can take anyone for granted; friendships like balls, sparkly balls dangling from a Christmas tree. I could say or do the wrong thing. The lack of intimacy. Yes, I do talk about what matters – work issues, writing, but I don’t go further now. Say how jittery I feel about the future, not sharing deep personal stuff. So many friends don’t know about my childhood or my teen years and how that scars and cuts me up still. I feel like it’s an essential part of me, of who I am, the way I am. Seeing personal stuff as being dirty. Yet, friends do tell each other these things.

Wednesday October 1 2008

October, birthday month. “At the age of thirty-seven,” sings Marianne Faithfull in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, my favourite song, “she realised she’d never ride in a sports car in Paris with the warm wind in her hair.” I’m still hoping that’s to come. Paris, warm wind, love.

Thursday October 2 2008

I love the short story. It’s definitely my genre, whether I go on to write novels, or novellas, or anything else, I’ll always have to write short stories, be satisfied by writing them, and reading others’. Alice Munro made her name writing stories. It’s what I want to do. That and personal essays, personal travel writing, some journalism. And have the space to tackle larger projects too, when I want to.

Sunday October 12 2008

Out last night with Jenny to see Coupe, a quietly brilliant play, created by Sylvaine Strike and Sue Pam Grant and the members of the Fortune Cookie Company. Set in a coupe, a second-class train compartment, three people share the compartment, a Frenchwoman, speaking only French, a twittery nervous English-speaking South African and an Afrikaner. Each speaks only in their own language to each other, and yet they manage to communicate. A revolving coupe is the stage set as they travel overnight. A play filled with layers, levels, meaning. Nuances. The head of a gazelle affixed to the wall of the coupe becomes mirror, repository of deep dreams and desires. As night goes on and each sleep another kind of communication takes place, More unnamed desires emerge. Each caught up in their own impossibilities. A rich work that lives on, no wonder it’s won so many awards and has garnered such a reputation.

At Jenny’s you feel the passage of years, not a weight, it doesn’t feel oppressive. The photographs in frames, on the fridge, in her bedroom, her family, brothers and sisters, her daughter as a baby, a toddler, a teen, grown up, Jenny and her husband through the years. Jenny seated at a typewriter in the 1980s. The settled feeling, you feel, you know that they have created lives, histories together, a warm, satisfied feeling, a contentment is present.

Saturday, November 22 2008

Went away with Venise to Umkwali Reserve to track cheetah. As always with Venise we find ourselves discussing personal things. We spoke a bit about Michael – this haunted, unresolved relationship in my life – and at one point she commented that everything I brought about him seemed negative. That observation felt uncomfortable and I laughed it off by saying but oh he looked so good and sexy in his leather jacket with his broad, handsome shoulders. I knew what I was doing – not wanting to see that comment or dwell on the negative, that there was a lot wrong with that relationship, when I often romanticise it. And I didn’t want Venise feeling like she had to analyse me. That’s her job as a therapist, I don’t want her to think she has to bring it to our friendship, be my therapist.

But her words reverberated and I have been thinking about it, and how right she was with that observation, and it closed something, that comment. How is it that no-one else has ever said it, seen the negative of that relationship through all my talking about it? Did the therapist I saw ten years ago, ever comment like this? Have friends ever said the same? Perhaps I haven’t been ready to hear that before, if it has been said. But suddenly, somehow, I was ready to hear it, and admit that yes there was a lot wrong with it and that it wasn’t right. A door clanged quietly: I stopped obsessing about Michael, and wondering what he might be doing now. Somehow that comment made me let him go, wherever he is, whatever he is doing, married, divorced, with kids or without. It no longer mattered to me to know. I put him in the past. A door shut and with it shutting, I saw other possibilities. It was the most liberating feeling. Could it be that I am finally over Michael? It feels like it.

* 'Crumbs' was published by POWA in 2009.

These extracts were published in In Our Own Words: A generation defining itself, 2008

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Flash fiction

100 Papers: A collection of prose poems and flash fiction by Liesl Jobson
Botsotso Publishing, 2008

“A pale pink slug emerges from between Josie’s teeth onto the dental floss that is wrapped so tightly around her thumbs that they bulge like purple grapes. ... When she pulls the floss between them, it snags... When she gets it right, the floss slides down without bumping her gums, the slugs are a pale creamy colour.”

So opens one of prose poems in “The Air of Words” in Liesl Jobson’s debut collection, comprised mainly of flash fiction and some prose poems. This piece is short, yet powerful, its images stay with you, from pale slugs of teeth detritus that turn pink with the blood coming from gums, to the larger issue of why Josie, the central figure in this drama of the flossing teeth, cannot eat and cannot say certain things.

And such is the power of many of the prose poems in 100 Papers. Another memorable one being the delightfully named “Sun-Dried Tomatoes” in which “droopy carrots” on a clothesline, along with “tomatoes and peppers flapping in the breeze” recall in a few, quick sentences what it means to have a mother who plants “father’s socks and shirts in the vegetable patch”. A witty poem that goes deep with its vegetable metaphors.

Another equally clever and moving prose poem is “Under my SAPS heart” where a kindly captain at Diepkloof’s Alien Investigations Unit recovers the narrator’s heart from a defunct fountain. “So pale, so under-developed it could only be a white girl’s heart”. In a few witty paragraphs we learn that the captain washes the heart of detritus before replacing the item: “The State will not be held responsible for such silliness in future.”

On the other extreme is “Button” in which marital abuse is highlighted in a few, deft strokes, in three paragraphs to be precise. Short, but memorable.

Meanwhile “Clutter” delights with its descriptions of items left in a large ceramic jar near the kitchen sink. Each item is representative of some person in the narrator’s life: a gift from an ex-husband, children’s milk teeth, a student “taught badly”. But the listing of all these items has a purpose in itself, as absolution may be obtained in the end. This is one of the most powerful prose poems in the collection, talking as it does of the universal problem of clutter that litters our lives and psyches, growing even as we try to move beyond the mounds of it.

With origins that stretch back in time to the days of Aesop’s Fables and Ovid, practitioners of the flash fiction form have included writers such as Anton Chekhov, O Henry, Ray Bradbury, Amy Hempel and Grace Paley. Yet, it’s only since the early 1990s that flash fiction has become so popular. Some say the growth of the internet has helped to spread its popularity: readers online are looking for a “quick fix”, not a lengthy, meandering story. Whatever the reasons, flash fiction has taken off in a big way. WW Norton in the US published the volume Flash Fiction in June 1992, and Tom Hazuka, one of the editors, says “initial response was overwhelmingly positive”. To date it has sold 22 000 copies and is in its fifth printing.

To my knowledge this is the first collection of flash fiction by a South African author. Anne Schuster was a pioneer in that she published Woman Flashing in 2005, a collection of flash fiction by women writers, but 100 Papers marks not only Jobson’s debut, but the debut of a collection flash fiction by a single author. What exactly is flash fiction? Experts – and readers and writers differ. At the launch of her collection in Johannesburg this past July, Jobson said that flash fiction was a highly poetic genre and described it as a “tricky beast”. Some publications call for flash fiction and set a word limit of 1 500. Most flash fiction pieces are from anything from less than 400 words for micro fiction, to up to 1 000 words long. Even the name itself is not fixed: it’s called anything from micro fiction, to flash fiction, postcard fiction, sudden fiction and so on. Says Camille Renshaw: “Readers discover something brief and intimate in a very short space of time. Meanwhile Randall Brown says “Great flash pieces have that ‘centerlight pop’.”

Jobson’s flash fiction world is largely a domestic one, with a few recurring themes, the divorced mother, whose children live with their father, infidelity and its effects, love and its rewards, and the milieu of families, which are not always cosy.

“Pickle” is one such story that takes a look at a divorced mother whose ex-husband has custody of the children. Seeing them only on alternate weekends, the mother tries, “she is trying to get it right. She really is, but it’s a big job looking after her children... There’s a lot of catching up to do for the other twelve days, the lost time. That’s the hard part.” This mother has a secret; she likes to finish cartons of ice-cream, leaving the healthy vegetables bought for herself and the kids to go mouldy. “The mother is tired, permanently blah. She hasn’t slept in weeks, maybe years.” This is a sensitively-wrought portrait of a mother, doing her best, trying to be a mother for two days out of every fortnight, sending jolly text messages to convey her love on the days she doesn’t see her children. An excellent piece.

“My Mother’s Diary” is a touching look at the narrator’s mother, writing as a young girl in 1970, interwoven with the daughter’s memories of girlhood from that time. It’s not as easy time for the ten year old with enormous breasts, called ‘Tits Tessa’ by the pre-pubescent male classmates, and meanwhile the police come regularly looking for her mother’s lover Koos, not white, in an apartheid South Africa. Jail, and then years later, Tessa releases her mother’s memory and ashes to the wind in poignant prose.

In “Duet” the unnamed narrator finds herself in a psychiatric ward after a man puts a gun to her head. “...I heard a click. Not the click of a trigger. I never heard that... The gunman’s finger played with the safety catch of his glock: flick-flick-flicking, like playing with a ballpoint.” What follows is a description of life in a mental ward where “a linen basket on castors” talks, there’s blood everywhere as a fellow patient tries to carve a heart on the narrator’s arm. This gripping story takes you right within the madness and confines of such a ward.

But there are lighter moment as well in this collection, as well as a bit of erotica. “Christmas Eve Picnic, Pretoria” offers a small moment in the life of two women lovers. It’s an imagining of the picnic to come, words are charged with sexual meaning and a delicious playfulness. “You place a round of Brie, pale as your breast, beside a salad of herbs...hanepoot grapes, fat as your nipple.” The real present comes after the picnic of course, and after love-making.

Or there’s “The Virtue of the Potted Fern”. The opening line, as always, sets the scene for what’s to come: “It’s not easy to organise a bookshelf that’s been moved from the guest room to your bedroom because your South African relatives are coming to stay.” You must be ruthless as you keep the I-Ching away from the Children of Heaven, and don’t put the Healing Back Pain next to The Story of O. Working in the dark, “Like the rules for entertaining foreign in-laws, they do not exist.” Instead perhaps put a potted fern by the bed, surely a quieter option.

Returning to Randall Brown’s assertion that good flash fiction has that “centerlight pop”, do Jobson’s pieces have that pop? I believe that many do. For my money, some work better than others, and I felt some resonated more than others, but each reader will have their favourite.

Research sources: (for Tom Hazuka’s comments) (for Camille Renshaw’s comments) (for Randall Brown’s comments)

First published in New Contrast, 2008

Bridget Jones in scrubs

Karma Suture by Rosamund Kendal
Jacana R130

It's the end of another long, tiring day for GP Sue Carey. She's wearing green surgery pants, as she had yet more body fluid spilled over her during the course of the day, and she hasn't eaten anything more nourishing than a giant slice of cheesecake.

She's just 28 years old, still single after a broken engagement, ginger-haired rather than auburn, sleek and more zaftig than svelte. She works 24-hour shifts at a time to pay off her huge medical bills, dashes from one hospital to another, and in between tries to relax, socialise, be a good friend to one who is slowly becoming addicted to drugs and anorexia, and meet men so she can have another relationship to endure, so she doesn't end up alone with only a cat for company. Oh yes, to add to all this, she joins a philosophy class.

If this already sounds too much like chick lit, it's anything but. A simple pr?cis may read like some kind of doctor/local Bridget Jones number, but Karma Suture presents something deeper and more profound. On one level this is a fairly light story: the trials and tribulations of an exhausted, overwrought young doctor still struggling to find her feet in the world, if not the hospital. But it also presents an astonishing portrait of what really goes on in government hospitals and the doctors who work in them.

Author Rosamund Kendal is herself a medical doctor who practises in KwaZulu Natal, dividing her time between medicine and creative writing. So clearly she knows what she is talking about.
Sue Carey is a likeable, fun character, and you get to laugh and love and empathise with her, but the secondary plotline - that of life in a hospital for the medical personnel - provides a compelling read that is gripping.

No amount of newspaper reports can as accurately describe the minutiae and day-to-day realities of life in our hospitals, from bed shortages and negotiations with other departments to clear the said beds; to treatments that don't happen, or happen too late; to diabetic patients guiltily wiping away pie crumbs after downing Cokes and nodding yes to doctor when she suggests other foods, but all in vain, as some patients will go back to what is easiest.

There are weekend stabbings, gang members and family members battling it out with broken bits of bottles, only to somehow become the best of buddies the next day. There are young girls who decide to take overdoses at four in the morning. It's no wonder the doctor on duty is short-tempered and irritable. And then the scourge of Aids: anyone who doubts its insidious presence need only to walk the wards of Bellville (where Sue mainly works), or any other large hospital.

People are dying, and they are dying of Aids, over and over. And yet each receives a different "cause of death", pneumonia for instance, as patient confidentiality prevents writing the truth.
Revolving around Sue the doctor are the accoutrements of her personal life. Her flatmate Leah, soon to snuggle up to married life; model Gina, skinny, getting high on drugs to stay that way; and Carol from the philosophy class, who becomes more than a friend.

Sue copes with the tensions of being a doctor by having more than the occasional one-night stands. Then she does get involved with a dishy young doctor and the path is not smooth (when is it ever?), but by now you're cheering her on.

This book also reads a bit like one in a series - you wouldn't mind hearing more; by the end you are really in sympathy with this slightly kooky, but loveable doctor. How did she get to where she is? You'd like to know more about her years of training or studying, and of course, what happens next?

Perhaps author Kendal will tell us in due course.

First published in The Star Tonight May 15 2008

Desert and desire become one

The Impostor by Damon Galgut
Penguin R163

This is a quiet, powerful story, a novel trimmed of excess, where every word means what it should. A handful of characters dominate the terrain of The Impostor, set in a small, sleepy Karoo town. This is a pared-down novel, running at just over 200 pages and yet huge in impact. It draws you in from the moment you begin, and keeps you mesmerised. Quietly. There is no gore; there are, seemingly, no cliffhangers.

And yet, peer beneath the surface and Galgut exposes the gore inherent in all our lives. This is a novel steeped in the realities of life in South Africa today, with its edge of corruption, its contradictions and its searing beauty against complex realities. "The guards and the thieves were the same people - there's South Africa in a nutshell," says a character halfway through the story.

It opens on the day that Adam Napier drives into a sleepy Karoo town. He's going to take up residence in the abandoned home that his wealthier brother Gavin bought some years ago. On the way there he is stopped by a traffic cop for running a stop street and is outraged when he's asked to pay a bribe to ensure the fine goes away. But Adam won't pay, he's just lost his job and his home, one of the reasons he's moving into this abandoned house. The scene sets the tone, revealing Adam as an upright and somewhat indignant man. It's only one of the traits that will set him apart in a country and a place where it's sometimes just so much easier to pay a bribe.
Adam, who once published a book of poems as a young man, is determined to begin writing poetry again after 20 years of silence and working in a faceless corporation. Forced out by affirmative action, injury is added because he didn't see it coming, that the young black junior was being groomed to replace him.

Choosing to spend the first night in the house, even before the electricity and water have been turned on, Adam experiences the first of many strange nights, with only his thoughts for company and a yearning to again write the poetry that just won't come.

His neighbour is a silent man in blue overalls and with steely grey hair, a man nearing old age. The first sighting is accompanied by a look that does not lead to an introduction, but the quiet shutting of doors.

Adam's life carries on, quiet days followed by quiet nights, with only his own thoughts and regrets for company. Then one day he bumps into Canning at a local shop. Canning, left money by the father he hated, inherited a game farm, Gondwana, just outside town. Adam will spend the first of many weekends there, drinking toxic blue cocktails and admiring Canning's black wife, Baby. Canning reveres Adam from their boarding school days, although Adam can barely remember him. But Adam returns again and again, drawn by desire for Baby.

Events move slowly, inevitably to a climax. Things are not what they seem at Gondwana, and changes are afoot. Canning will benefit from this new South Africa ? and not just by acquiring a desirable black wife.

Part of the beauty and power of this novel lies in Galgut's finely-tuned use of language. The Karoo comes alive under his pen, a stark harsh Karoo baking in the sun, full of spiky plants and hard, tough earth. Dialogue is carefully pared down and measured. There are no superfluous pages of conversation, and Galgut has an ear for South African idiom and expression.

As Adam tries to makes sense of the changes that will befall the game farm and all their lives, he is taken on a helicopter ride with Canning. "It comes to him that time is the great distorting lens.
Up close, human life is a catalogue of pain and power, but when enough time has gone past, everything ceases to matter. Nothing that people do to each
other will carry any moral charge eventually. History is just like the ground down there: something neutral and observable, a pattern, a shape."

With The Impostor Damon Galgut once more firmly establishes himself as a writer of immense and strange power. A writer who can carry the mettle of greatness without a wobble.

First published in The Star, Tonight May 22 2008

A lengthy pursuit of redemption

My Brother's Book by Jo-Anne Richards
Picador Africa R158

This book contains the most original line of a novel I have ever read: "I was born on page 23 of my brother's book. On page 52, before the whole world, I betrayed him. There was so much in between though. So many days plumped by doves roasted on fires, and fruit straight off the tree ... How could you have crushed all that into fewer than thirty pages?"

So begins a well researched novel that moves between the 1960s and 2004. It's told largely through the viewpoint of Lily, sister to the brother of the title, Tom. Their complex relationship is laid bare in a betrayal that will alter their lives and ruin the ties between them. Tom has now written a book, hence the title, and Lily takes issue with the way he has recalled the past.
The story not only weaves between the present of 2004, but also leaps around in time in the scenes set in their childhood in the 1960s. Lily and her Tom are being raised by their father, referred to as "Pop", in the American tradition, which didn't make sense for me. The mother disappeared years before, a constant absence in their lives. Pop ekes out a living with Tom and Lily following him as he moves them between towns such as Fort Beaufort, Cathcart and Bedford. Lily and Tom grow up haphazardly ? Pop is loving and kind, a maverick kind of soul, but a beacon of security and stability he isn't.

The siblings are forced to make new friends over and over again. Sometimes shunned by the white kids, they fall in with coloured kids, but this is apartheid South Africa, and at the first sign of acceptance by the white kids, allegiances, understandably, shift. Time shifts often, and sometimes Lily, the main narrator, is referring to life in another small town, in the past, so to speak, and I found these passages jolting me right out of the story.

Richards is adept at exploring the long-ago world of childhood, reaching right into the heart of childhood that is a novelist's gift. Speaking about the moon landing, Lily recalls that "The astronauts said the moon made them feel like people who are all excited to go on holiday, but find when they get there that it looked a hell of a lot better in the pictures. The moon was just grey, they said. Kind of like plaster of Paris." Meanwhile, "Captain Borman had a beautiful view of Earth. He was floating in front of the camera for the Americans. But we could still hear his voice on the A Programme, even if we didn't have TV in South Africa."

Richards is equally adept at describing the landscapes, evoking the beauty of the eastern Cape with sentences such as: "The morning lay motionless across the village. Everything held its breath as though, by its stillness, it could hang on to some vestige of early freshness."
Richards' dialogue is also spot on, she has an ear for the SA patois and idiom, sprinkling her sentences with South Africanisms as "Afrikaner-vrot-Bananas", or "safe like a kuif" and that old word for the movies, bioscope, lives again. But the Afrikanerisms get a bit much: English speakers don't pepper their language with that many words from the other taal.

This not quite idyllic childhood is nevertheless recalled with warmth and nostalgia by the adult Lily. Understandably, of course, a time when she could still look up to the adored Tom and have that love returned. Contrast that with the scenes set in 2004 in which Tom's book appears, and the cracks in their relationship, hammered solidly in by Lily's betrayal, are obvious and ugly. Lily would dearly like to repair the damage and the pain this rupture has caused.

The present slowly comes into focus: letters are exchanged between Lily and Miranda, an old lover of Tom's. It's some time before we discover who Lily is writing to, until finally the signature is revealed, but I found this device annoyingly twee.

Eventually the story unravels, but it takes too long to get there. Richards' strengths are also the weaknesses of the novel; while the dialogue is authentic and delightful, there's simply too much of it. Her research is thorough, and this shows in the many authentic details in which life in a small town is detailed, but again, there's too much of it, and less detail would've allowed a fine story to flow more effortlessly.

First published in The Star, Tonight supplement June 26 2008

Foreign affair with China

Drinking From The Dragon's Well by Alex Smith
Umuzi R155

South African travel writing comes of age in this delightful, witty travel memoir by Alex Smith. Her highly successful novel, Algeria's Way, was published last year and this makes a wonderful follow-up, as it were.

In 2006, Smith spent a year teaching English in China, in the city of Wuhan, a grey, dusty city distinguished by nothing more than the fact that for yonks Smith couldn't find a map of the place, for love or money ? and forget about finding a map in English, as you would if you were in China's happening cities such as Beijing.

Leaving her part-time job as a social editor at the now defunct magazine Style, Smith heads to China. She's had a meeting with a publisher (Umuzi), who gave her green tea and enthusiasm and so begins the long process of waiting to see if her "skinny Spanish novel" will be accepted. Skinny Spanish novel becomes Algeria's Way in time, but there's a lot of agony before Smith hears anything more from the publisher who gave her green tea.

For 32-year-old Smith, tea is more exciting and more addictive than sex. She's accepted this job teaching English even though teaching isn't really her passion. It will give her time to write, and she's not looking for foreign romances or anything so misty-eyed. She just wants an answer from her publisher and maybe stories from China that can be wound into a longer piece on that great, enervating yet mysterious country.

What she finds is that she earns more than local teachers, despite the fact that she is inexperienced and not really into imparting the rules and grammar of the language to others. She is given a huge apartment with three rooms, brown curtains, concrete floors and a Western toilet hastily fitted into her bathroom. She also has big fat maggots growing on a pipe in the bathroom, but these can be tackled as soon as the bathroom's stopped flooding. Nothing a plumber with crooked teeth and no English can't fix, though.

Smith writes postcards to her beloved granny Constance, back in Cape Town, tick-ticking away on her old manual green typewriter. Not much of a writer herself - the plots have always eluded her - still Constance churns out her minor stories. Smith's missives to her gran are touching, witty, bright points of reference in this book.

Her job is to get her unlucky and difficult class 4.4.12 to speak English. Two hours are devoted to this task every week and Smith does her creative best to get these shy, unwilling students to talk after their days spent working. After telling them all about Nelson Mandela one night, she asks them to speak on "What makes a person a real hero? What are your heroes?"

Smith learns as much from her students as they from her, and the book is sprinkled with their answers and the delightful way they have of twisting the English language. "My mother," says one student, talking about those she admires, "she is optimistic to the world, and struggles with illness bravely. Zhou Enlai, first prime minister of PRC (People's Republic of China) because he is intelligent, generous, magnanimous, tolerant, humorous and handsome as well."

Talking about travel and adventure to her students, asking them where their favourite journeys were to, yields yet more entry into their frames of reference: "Beijing is my favoured journey. I like to live in the sky."
"One day when I honeymoon. Then live in a city with middle-class scale."
"My journey of life I'd like to live somewhere over the rainbow."

Meanwhile, Smith waits for news of her skinny Spanish novel and sends out a rough draft of yet another Spanish novel, this time about pigeons, to overseas publishers. Life is an exercise in waiting and hoping, meanwhile gradually making friends with both other English teachers as well as some of her Chinese students and colleagues.

The writing is funny and witty, and yet there's a lot of pathos in this book, too. It's hard to categorise it as strictly travel or strictly memoir, instead it's a wonderful combination of both. Smith takes South African travel writing to new heights.

China does come alive in Smith's hands - but it's a Smith version of China. It's a China where you bake in the summer and freeze in the winter, where you surf the Internet, because you can't sleep, and the 'Net is a friend of sorts, a China where you're suddenly illiterate, because you can't read a street sign, and adjusting to the disorientation that brings. It's a China where you start to make sense of Chinese characters through diligent struggle, knowing that it's only when you get to 5 000 characters that you'll even begin to read the newspaper.

It's the endearing story of one woman's voyage through a year in a foreign country; it's charming, funny and sad in places. It's bright and funny, and you're sorry to close the book.

Published in The Star, Tonight August 14 2008

Old films hold a lost world

You can't watch the Yiddish Film Festival without reflecting on what was to come and what was lost
Watching Molly Picon in the 1923 Yiddish silent film East and West and then in 1938's Mamele is like watching a history of film. Both are part of the Yiddish Film Festival on in Cape Town. In 'East and West' cameras don't move, actors do. So there are times when the action takes place just a little too far off centre. Subtitles projected on to a black screen break up the action. It all feels delightfully quaint.
When one character is thinking of another, his or her image appears surrealistically superimposed. Actors and their characters are introduced when they first appear and the subtitles are flashed on to the screen for far longer than they are in today's foreign films. Also leaps in the plot are unbelievable by today's standards. In the end you just can't step away from being a watcher. But that's also part of the charm.
East and West is the earliest surviving film of Picon. Born in the United States in 1898, she was taken to Europe by her husband Jacob Kalich to improve her Yiddish. This she would use in the Yiddish talking movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

In East and West, she plays Molly, the flighty young daughter of Mr Brown (formerly Brownstein), who left his native Eastern Europe to make it big in America. Molly and her father journey back to the old land for a family wedding. Old and new, east and west, rub up against each other.

Molly doesn't wear a scarf or have missing teeth like others back home. She wears pretty dresses and gets up to all sorts of mischief, such as making the wedding singers dance to jazz and devouring a whole chicken on Yom Kippur instead of fasting and praying. One of the most delightful scenes comes at the dinner table when the extended family sits down for noodle soup, described as "a luxury which is music to the ears". Molly is coquettish and pulls faces, particularly at Jacob, a young Talmudic scholar who has joined the household. Through her flighty actions she finds herself married to him, and that's the beginning of some unhappiness.
When East and West was released, it was as popular as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and outplayed it for months.
Mamele ('Mommy' in English) is like leaping forward decades. Not only are we into the era of talkies, but film-making had also progressed enormously. The camera tracks the characters and you hear the Yiddish language, a rich, earthy combination of Hebrew and German.
Picon is the mamele, Havche, taking care of her brood of siblings and a father. Their mother died a few years before and Havche promised to take care of the family. It's Poland in the 1930s. Girls work in factories, money is tight and the extended family lives in a flat so close to their neighbours that their arguments can be overheard.
There's a poignancy in watching this movie - you know that within a few years this would end. The war and its attendant horrors lie ahead.
Mamele is a look at a lost world and poses the question: why should a young girl sacrifice her life for a promise, and for a clearly ungrateful family? A sub-plot veers off into gangsterism, and we see gangsters in suits, smoking cigarettes, doing deals.
Picon breaks into song, singing of Havche's unhappiness, and, yes, once more there are plot elements that stretch the modern imagination.
Why put on a Yiddish film festival after all these years, and what's its appeal? Sharon Riva, the director of the National Centre for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, has overseen many successful festivals in places such as New York, Sydney, Helsinki and Sao Paulo. She says that the audiences are mixed, with many older but also some young people seeking a glimpse of a lost world.
"We just premiered a new [film] restoration in Jerusalem, with the youngest [audience member] two months old; [there was also] a Hassidic Jew in full dress and many people in their 20s and 30s seeking knowledge of the richness of a culture that was destroyed before its time. These films capture the diverse world of Yiddish theatre, music, comedy and life, and the richness of the culture."
Veronica Belling, a researcher at the Jewish Studies Library at the University of Cape Town, agrees: "Yiddish film is an offspring of the Yiddish theatre, and it inherits its themes and its flamboyant acting styles. "The films explore two distinct worlds - the old world of the shtetl of the eastern European Jews, just as they are poised to leave for the new world, for America, to create new lives away from religious persecution. This is where their drama and their poignancy lie. We see this most movingly in the movie Tevya that opens the festival."

Tevya (US, 1939) is based on Sholem Aleichem's play about Khave, a dairyman's daughter, who falls in love with the son a Ukrainian peasant.
Eight films are being screened, including American Matchmaker, with Leo Fuchs, described as the "Yiddish Fred Astaire". In this 1940 musical comedy, Fuchs plays Nat Silver, a debonair American whose eighth engagement goes awry.
Great Cantors of the Golden Age is a recent compilation that combines highlights from Yiddish film-maker Joseph Seiden's 1931 film, The Voice of Israel, and cantors from the 1910s to the 1940s. Greenfields (US, 1937) is Peretz Hirshbein's classic play adapted by Edgar Ulmer and is one of the most critically acclaimed of the Yiddish talkies.
The restoration of these films is complicated, Riva says. "We search the world for extant prints and negatives and then piece the films back together, scene by scene - usually working with nitrate prints from which we make a new safety negative, then create a new translation in English, produce a separate 35mm subtitle track and then generate new 35mm prints from which we make DVDs. The process can take a year and costs between $60 00 [R470 000] and $100 000 each."

Belling adds: "These films are a must for film boffs, as well as for people who just want to be entertained ? they have gained appeal simply because of their historical context."
The festival is at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town until Thursday, when it opens at Johannesburg's Hyde Park Nu Metro theatre and runs until August 28. For more information on Yiddish films go to http://www.jewishfilm/. org
Published in Sunday Life, The Sunday Independent, August 17 2008

Debut effort heralds greater things to come

Whiplash by Tracey Farren
Modjaji Books R150

The cover of this debut novel leads you in. If covers sell books and attract readers, then designer Natascha Griessel has done her job. The simple, yet effective, predominantly blue-hued cover with the elongated shadow of a woman on the road sets the scene.

This ground-breaking novel centres on a year in the life of a white prostitute in Cape Town. It's set in Muizenberg, when the suburb was still sleazy. Tess, 26 years old and addicted to painkillers, turns tricks to make a living. Fifty bucks will generally do it. Getting into strangers' cars, or lying beside freeways, she takes her life in her hands every time she accepts a new client. She has no pimp and works only by day. Yet the ever-present danger of her line of work is presented again and again: one woman is fatally slit from throat to stomach, another takes a beating.

The topic of Whiplash is unusual, uncomfortable and daring. Prostitutes are so far out of sight in our polite society. We don't think about them or accord the anonymous women on the side of the road names or lives. Yet in Whiplash, Farren has done the seemingly impossible: she has created, in the fun and spunky Tess, a likeable character. In part this is due to the humour that runs through the narrative.

These may be desperate times, and Tess is down on her luck, an addict, a prostitute, living from one day to the next, but she is no desperado, no wanna-be suicide.

There is, always, a sense that this is just for now. As she lies in her bath, she dreams of a life that could be: "I'll live with a big man. Maybe a body builder ? I'll have sculptures put up at my heated pool? I'll float round on a big, puffy lilo. When he gets home from work he'll kiss me on the forehead."

Farren, an ex-journalist, gleaned a lot of her information from talking to prostitutes and her astute observation shows in the details of this book. The language is earthy and real, fast-paced and breathless, yet underscored with wit: "The sun is flippin' desperate, thinks it's gonna die young or something. It stings my cheeks, makes wet patches under my arms." Or this: "The flat's still full of the shock of the blast. The air's still scared. ? I gobble two Adcodol, lock the last two back in my boot. God, I want more."

This almost light-hearted tone informs the novel, which tends to liven the mood of what could have been a depressing read.

Tess lives in False Bay Holiday, with the missing word, Flats, nailed onto a fence at a tyre repair shop. That's the kind of place it is. And peopled by Madeleine, sewing to make a living, and mourning her missing husband. Tess has friends like Annie, soon to follow her boyfriend to Joburg, or Princess with a broken face. In-between there are the clients such as a cop who gets freebies in exchange for his silence, or the man in a marriage made tight by the fact that he and his wife can't have children, a man whom she soon is befriending.

This is a book begun as an address to her mother back in Durban, a mother whose influence has shaped Tess, and also shapes the story, as absent as she may be. There's also the ghost of her stepfather Graham, still alive, but you can barely call him that, felled by a stroke, impassive, silent in his wheelchair. The past weaves into the present, and as the story progresses, we learn why Tess remains haunted by these two people who shaped her, and why she drifted into the life of a prostitute.

But something's got to break and this comes in the form of a broken condom. Before long, Tess realises that her sudden craving for fish points to a larger problem.

What happens after becomes a turning point for Tess, and the story pivots on this decision. It remains a roller-coaster of a journey and as readers we are led through by Farren's confident, jazzy prose.

Some of the novel could have been cut in order to get to the heart of the story. However, this is an assured book and marks the debut of a startling new voice on the South African literary scene.

Published in The Star Tonight September 4 2008

You're married, it happens

Strange things happen when you go on leave. You come back married, with a brand new name and absolutely no idea who your new husband might be.

Going online, your bank cheerfully welcomes you with a "Welcome Arja!", but your name is now Mrs A Coetzee.

The customer care woman at the other end of the line is not only mystified, but also doesn't seem to care. You tell her there's no Coetzee in your family, never has been and you've never been a Coetzee - how could this happen?

She doesn't know, suggests you get in your car and drive to your nearest branch to sort it out.
The cheery poppie at the counter assures you it's nothing to worry about, it happens all the time when a bank updates its software and records and, not to worry, her colleague is going to sort it out. You still have the same amount of money in your account, don't you?

Yes, alack and alas, you do. The new name didn't bring a rosy glow to your bank balance, and the last thing you want to do while you're supposed to be away from the hurly burly of life is to encounter it at your nearest bank.

Back at work, a colleague asks if you've checked your status at home affairs. What if you have been married off secretly somewhere offshore? You turn ice cold for a minute. It's nightmare territory - proving you're not married is like proving sky is blue.

Holding your breath, you check - no, home affairs hasn't married you off; it's only the bank that is determined to see you with the knot tied.

Friends don't understand why you are not livid with rage, why you haven't demanded to see the bank manager... Truth is, you're tired. When you're not fighting name changes, you're fighting a cellphone company over their 3G service that doesn't work, or holding on to the phone while a bored oke at DStv is telling you to pull out the red plug and replace it with a yellow.

No, it's your Jewish mother who comes to the rescue. When she tries to deposit a cheque for you and the bank won't accept it because it isn't in the name of Coetzee, she goes into action. Thank God for Jewish mothers who don't take no for an answer.

Days later the poppie from the bank phones to say that your name has been changed but now they can no longer investigate the matter because it would be too difficult because you are no longer Mrs Coetzee.

You stare down the phone. You can just imagine the face on the other end and barely manage to splutter out that you don't care how difficult it is, you still want the matter investigated.

As you put down the phone, a messenger brings you a little black box. Inside, with a press release inviting you to a bridal expo, a fake diamond ring in a black velvet box winks up at you, and nestled further down is a little plastic statue of a man and woman in wedding regalia, the kind that you plop on to a cake.

Finally, you howl.

Published in The Sunday Independent, October 19 2008

Life once the fairytale's over

Marriage Vows by Gail Schimmel Kwela Books R165

It's Jordi Gordan's 55th birthday. Happily married to Hal since her early 20s, she rises on this birthday, and looks in the mirror. "I pull the skin on my face tight by placing my hands on my cheeks and pulling back, toying with the idea of a face-lift ? I let my face fall back and poke at my crow's feet - the wrinkles gather at my eyes like old ladies gossiping on a corner."

While Hal cooks her traditional birthday breakfast, she receives an SMS from Nico, the man who has skirted the boundaries of her life for more than 30 years, while she has remained happily married to the man now cooking her food. "This brief mourning is all that Nico is allowed of my birthday, and for a moment, seated on the toilet, I belong to Nico."

So begins a novel, in deceptively simple language, that explores what it means to love two men, yet to stay true to your own belief in the sanctity of marriage and the vows so quickly repeated.

The language is light, unadorned of excess or flowery adjectives. Jordi could be talking out loud as the narrative progresses. As such it might be easy to dismiss this book, yet this is a book that raises issues around infidelity, the nature of love, and whether to remain true to your feelings or your beliefs.

This is not a simple tale, although it is simply told. Marriage Vows, Gail Schimmel's debut novel, is as nuanced and layered as, well, yes a 10-tier wedding cake.

The novel moves between past and present, alternating between Jordi's 55th birthday and the memories of her life with Hal, and their two children, now grown, and the meeting with Nico. In London on a business trip, her husband and children back in Johannesburg, she meets the man who will haunt her.

Jordi kept me reading right till the end; she is a strong, yet heart-breaking character. Schimmel has painted her portrait in vivid strokes.

A successful businesswoman, Jordi has married her career with her family. On the night of her birthday she is hosting a business dinner party for her husband, instead of spending it with her family and friends. A first clue to Jordi's nature - somewhat selfless - is that she is sacrificing this night for Hal without much complaint.

We learn of a cherished sister, Belinda, who died of cancer, in love with a married man, and taking the secret of his identity to the grave with her. Infidelity and temptation lurk, cosy bedfellows.

The story is peopled by the other sister, Denise, cold and distant, and her mother makes an early appearance, talking mostly high school French as dementia takes hold.

There's Jordi's best friend, Sally, whose multiple marriages and the six children she had produced serve as foil to Jordi's own quiet, but loving and only marriage. "Sex on a stick," Sally says referring to her latest husband, Neil, 10 years her junior, but "recently I have started thinking that Sally's enthusiasm about Neil is sliding. Occasionally she lets slip a snide comment about pretty faces not being all they're cracked up to be."

The past and the present continue to intertwine. As Jordi shops, has lunch with Sally and prepares for the evening, a portrait of her marriage emerges. Throughout the years there's Nico, who Jordi met at the age of 30, but it's a relationship both push away for various reasons. Jordi's belief in her vows, Nico's need to stay close to a dying wife.

Timing, so important in relationships, jars and disconnects the two. When Nico remarries, Jordi feels pierced, yet when he offers to leave his second wife for her, again alignment is out of sync. Yet, the realisation has its effects: "The knowledge that Nico would leave his wife for me was bad. It seeped like poison through my thoughts, and its bitter fingers plucked at my day. Every time something went wrong, the thought would be there: I don't have to take this; I have an alternative."

As the novel builds to its climax, there's a breathless, almost thriller-like impulse in the reader to get to the end, to find out what happens. I was left just about shocked by the ending. Schimmel has revealed no clues. What remains is a sense of how memory distorts, and of how one can be so wrapped up in strong beliefs of the way a marriage should be that the truth of a relationship remains clouded.

Schimmel's strong craftsmanship moves this story along seamlessly weaving between the times. This is an important debut by a local writer of real power, and I look forward to reading her next novel.

Published in The Star Tonight November 20 2008

Deftly summons human frailties of New Yorkers

The Last Bachelor by Jay McInerney
Bloomsbury R279,95

This is the latest collection of short stories by Jay McInerney, who shot to prominence in 1984 with the publication of Bright Lights, Big City. The collection, largely peopled by those who call New York or its neighbouring environs home, is clearly set in a post 9/11 world.

While one story, 'I Love you, Honey', directly deals with the events of that day, there are oblique references to the day that changed America forever, and scarred that country and New Yorkers.

But this is not a collection about that tragic day, or its aftermath. It's a book peopled by ordinary people doing all the things that people do: bruise and punish each other with their infidelities, set out to marry rich men and have Thanksgiving parties where the muck of the past is raked through with regularity.

Although it's set mainly in New York, several of the characters have roots in the South, and the languid, humid South is contrasted with the more frenetic, neurotic mores of the north.

There are some lighter, fun pieces too, and McInerney shows a witty hand in 'Summary Judgement' in which a social climber who has "passed the first blush of youth", sets out to capture a rich man after the death of her husband leaves her in debt. The story is cattily delicious: there are hints of impropriety in Alysha de Sante's past, there are underhand dealings as she sets out to snag a businessman, and we watch as she reels him in, and cheer when she makes a fatal error.

Infidelity and its effects are dealt with in three of the stories, the aforementioned 'I Love you, Honey', 'Invisible Fences' and 'Putting Daisy Down'. In each of these tightly constructed tales, the married couples punish each other in ways that are scarcely imaginable. A woman has abortions to punish the wandering eye of her husband in the ironically titled, 'I Love you, Honey'; in 'Putting Daisy Down', a title that gives away the ending, a woman demands her husband put his 10-year-old cat to sleep, but pays the price as the story closes, and again we cheer.

Meanwhile, in 'Invisible Fences' Susan must pay the price for her infidelity as she and her husband start picking up men in bars to take home at night.

Observes her husband Dean: "When you're playing outside the regular borders, it's important to have rules and boundaries." But playing outside of the rules doesn't always lead to happiness: "I made her tell me everything. I was tortured by visions of her treachery, by my own roiling filthy imagination ? until we both realised that the actual circumstances would never be enough to match the visions in my head."

In 'The Madonna of Turkey Season' we are introduced to a family who have lost their mother and wife to cancer. The scene is played with yearly frequency: the father becoming maudlin, the brothers pushing against each other in ways that cannot be forgiven. At the heart of the story is the unhappiness the family feels over one of the brothers, Brian, who has written a play, subsequently made into a film, which explores the death of their mother and introduces a note of infidelity in the relationship of the parents.

It's hard to make doubt disappear once the seed has been planted, and hard to forgive the brother for planting the seed. Hard too, not to believe that Brian may have been privy to a deathbed confession none of the others were witness to. And it's hard to see the failings of a mother who has died too young: "We always believed in you Mother, more than anything, but we never for a moment thought you were human."

In 'Penelope on the Pond' a woman waits in a remote pond for her lover, a senator campaigning for the president, and yet to announce a forthcoming divorce. Out of sight of the tabloids, it's ultimately not the blogger journalist who will drive a knife into their relationship, but the smooth-talking wannabe president himself.

In the quietly thoughtful 'The Last Bachelor' Ginny encounters her long lost lover, AG, in the weekend before his first marriage at the ripe age of 40. The story passes back in time, detailing the dalliances of AG, who feels it's time to finally settle down.

When he visits Ginny the night before his nuptials, bringing lines of coke, old secrets are revealed, old loves given an audience. This is a tender, wise story, somewhat sad in execution. And sometimes, seems to be the message of the story, it really is too late to do the right thing.

Published in The Star, Tonight, February 26 2009

Fiction with the sting of fact

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro (Random House/Struik R300)

Alice Munro is one of our contemporary masters of the short story, who has made her literary reputation through her crafting of short fiction, that often-neglected and under-valued genre. This year, she was awarded the third Man Booker International Prize for her overall contribution to international fiction, an accolade which firmly cements her reputation.

In Too Much Happiness, her latest collection, Munro once again mostly focuses on the lives of her fellow Canadians, barring the novella-length piece which closes the book. Hers is a gaze that is tender and compassionate, a gaze that bathes her stories in a sensitivity that is acutely felt.
This is not a writer who judges her characters, nor does she mete out punitive actions.

There is suffering, then again, there is always suffering when casting an eye over the human condition, but we feel that Munro's characters are well taken care of, gently led from beginning to end.

And yet, there is darkness in Munro's stories. Her simple story-telling hides the truth of the sorrow that is out there, presenting portraits that are seemingly simple, innocuous tales.
I've long been a fan of Munro, and have read all her collections. But, strangely, there's a darkness in these stories that I haven't noticed in her previous volumes, and which makes reading Too Much Happiness an interesting experience.

However, there is also a truth that we all recognise once we reach the final line of so many of these stories.

The opening story, 'Dimensions', highlights the recent tragic events in the life of Doree, a young woman who has to take three buses to reach the prison where her husband is held. She is working as a chamber maid, has changed her appearance by bleaching her hair and losing weight and is seeing a counsellor.

She is in the throes of change, a change brought on by tragedy, which is only slowly, and horrifying revealed as the story unfolds. A moment in time helps the healing, and although time will continue to heal, we feel, life is rarely that cut and dried.

In 'Fiction' Munro cleverly contrasts the world of fiction with that of reality. The story is told in two parts, sometime at the cusp of the 1980s and today.

What is remembered, and noticed, differs according to whom is doing the remembering. In this story Joyce divorces her husband when he has an affair.

Years later, at a party she gives with her second husband, she meets a young woman, a writer who has just published her first book.

When Joyce reads it, she gasps at what the woman, a child from her own past, has written. But the young writer does not recognise Joyce, barely acknowledges her.

Meanwhile, Wenlock Edge, set in a long-ago 1950s of university students sharing digs, is a strangely unsettling narrative.

The unnamed narrator is paying her studies by working in the university canteen and living cheaply.

When she is forced to share with the quiet, yet compelling Nina, she is introduced to a world that is far from pin set suits and propriety.

Yet, the story unfolds gradually: we are made aware of the hold that people have on each other, and the loyalty that binds them.

People are strange, no more strange than Mr Purvis, who prefers that women read poetry to him in the nude. A compelling, utterly memorable piece.

Both 'Free Radicals' and 'Face' present shocking, yet totally believable portraits of ordinary people living ordinary lives yet hiding secrets and afflictions which subtly twist the dynamics of their interactions.

In 'Free Radicals' Nita has just, unexpectedly, lost her husband. Yet, when an intruder bursts into her home, we learn her secret; the reasons are compellingly believable, and we even cheer her on. In 'Face' the damage inflicted on one born with a livid birthmark is re-lived, a damage that waxes and wanes and yet determines a person's life.

The damage that other people do is again the subject of another story, 'Child's Play', a story of children who engage in action that is anything but childish, and yet is also firmly anchored in that world of seeming innocence.

The novella-length 'Too Much Happiness' is a strangely compelling tale, although the focus this time is on Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician and novelist in 1891, a time when mathematicians had to be male, and females in this decidedly masculine environment suffered for having been born so.

The fiction examines aspects of her life, her love affair with a man who was reluctant to commit to her, and a final, perilous journey to Stockholm. It's a bitter sweet story, a story which opens new avenues of interest in a woman whose name now lends itself to a crater on the moon.

Published December 21 2009 in Pretoria News

A strong narrative set in rural SA

The Angina Monologues by Rosamund Kendal (Jacana, R145)

Rosamund Kendal's second novel, The Angina Monologues deals, as did her debut, with the trials and tribulations of being a modern doctor in today's South Africa. Like the first, Karma Suture, it also has a deliciously witty title.

The Angina Monologues centres on three young women interns who are completing compulsory medical community service in rural KwaZulu-Natal, at Prince Xoliswe hospital, in a one-horse town. Each is vastly different, and we follow their lives and struggles with life in a decaying hospital, decay which is made worse by the corruption practised by those in charge. We are introduced to each in separate chapters.

There's Rachael, spoilt and rich. We meet her as she wanders disconsolately around her spartan doctor's quarters, trying to figure out how to make water emerge from the taps. You pump it yourself, of course, or pay the dagga-smoking gardener to do it for you. Shock number one. Yet Rachael is determined to make a go of her community service and to stick it out. Not an easy task when she is beset by her parents at every turn, her neurotic Jewish mother in particular, imploring her to pack up, return to Cape Town and board the first plane to London where she can find a job as a doctor, and a husband too, hopefully.

In contrast to the wild and funny Rachael is the conservative, quiet young wife Seema. Passionately dedicated to her vocation as a doctor, and a brilliant medic, she harbours a painful secret. Her husband Satesh is both insanely jealous of her abilities, and abusive in his jealousy and his lack of love for her. But for Seema to abandon her marriage would mean incurring her family's wrath and alienation. She struggles poignantly with these dilemmas throughout the story.

Then there's Nomsa: feisty, ambitious, and equally passionate about her calling. And yet she too is caught between two worlds - an education in Cape Town away from her family in Aliwal North means that she feels alienated from her home and her rural, illiterate mother. But her mother is sick and Nomsa must return home and face the family she loves with a fierce sense of pride, yet returning means awakening a mass of contradictions within her.

Nomsa's portrait is finely drawn - I found her the most compelling of the three. The tensions that threaten to tear her apart are sensitively revealed.

It is only fairly late in the narrative that the three meet up, becoming more friendly with each other, and I couldn't help wishing that this had happened earlier on in the story. Part of the joy of each woman's life is in the connections they have made with each other, and this forms part of the enjoyment of the reading.

A very apt and large part of the story is Kendal's explanation of conditions at a rural hospital, which are shocking, to say the least. The stories of the various patients are also woven into the novel, and some of the stories are heartbreaking, especially in cases where private, expensive medical care could have saved lives.

Kendal, a medical doctor herself, knows what she is talking about, and her fiction exposes the truths and deceptions in an entertaining, yet ultimately shocking way.

Kudos to her for doing it so cleverly and for uncovering the facts that need to be exposed.

At the end of the year the threads of these young women's lives coalesce in a number of decisions made, and realisations achieved. This is a delightful, witty, entertaining read - serious truths are explored, and lives are deftly and intelligently explored in this strong narrative.

Published in The Star Tonight September 23 2010 and Pretoria News September 27 2010

Memories of the way we were . . .

Author interview and review: Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, Penguin 2010

A man goes on a journey in these three inter-linked novellas set across time. The man's name is Damon. He observes, meets another, grows older, is touched and changed by the experiences. He watches the world, the world in turn watches him. Yet, who is Damon? On first being introduced to the narrator and also participant of these three pieces, there's a jolt. Damon the author, the centre point of the stories? The author isn't going to say.

What Damon Galgut is doing in this book amounts to play. Between the layers of seriousness, there's an artful play at work. Galgut is asking questions, challenging our preconceived notions of fiction. It's a book which keeps you, as reader, perennially on your toes, and yet supremely interested, too, in the events that are unfolding within these sparsely, almost dryly written pages.

This is a story of memory, according to Galgut, but this is also an examination of the nature of travel - and how we change and evolve as we leave what's familiar for the unfamiliar, even if, like Damon, we are not natural travellers. "The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance. He spends most of his time on the move in a state of acute anxiety? he's constantly afraid of dying."

Galgut summons up the story of a journey: "A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has written in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile?"

What follows is a short description of plot, because plot is not central to this series of novellas.
In the first novella, The Follower, Damon meets a man, Reiner, while travelling in Greece. When Reiner visits him in South Africa the two undertake a disastrous journey to the isolated mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It's made disastrous by Damon's passivity, and a sense of threat emanating from Reiner.

In the second novella, The Lover, the same passivity follows Damon as he travels through Africa years after his journey through Greece. While in Zimbabwe he meets a group of European travellers, and keeps meeting up with them, despite trying to go his own way. One of the travellers, Jerome, exerts a strange pull and Damon will travel to Switzerland, but the end is concluded, again, by Damon's nature.

However, in The Guardian, Damon is propelled into action in turn by the wild actions of his friend Anna. They have travelled to India together, in some sort of hope that the wildly unstable Anna will be calmed and soothed by being away. It reads like a high-action thriller as Damon's passivity is thrown off. This was a deeply compelling piece, made unbearably poignant by what happens to Anna and Damon.

The writing is tight and spare; landscape forms a backbone to all three stories, suggested rather than painted in primary colours. The real surprise is when Galgut chooses to invert the traditional method of telling a story, first person morphs into third and back again. At first, you're jolted by the device, then it becomes part of the telling, and is a surprisingly effective device and not at all disruptive to the reading. Here's an example: "What is he looking for, he himself doesn't know. At this remove, his thoughts are lost to me now, and yet I can explain him better than my present self, he is buried under my skin."

Intrigued by this device, I ask Galgut what he means by it. He writes in an e-interview from Italy: "The real subject of this book is memory. In the writing, I have tried to capture something of the quality of the way memory works. That's the reason for the switch - in memory one is sometimes an 'I', back in the moment being recalled; then at other times a 'he' or 'she', a stranger observed from outside. And sometimes also a 'you', somebody one can address over the intervening time. It sounds cumbersome, but I hope it reads effortlessly, because it's something we all do unconsciously in our heads the whole time. Of course, memory is another sort of story we tell ourselves, which is why the book is written as fiction."

We're on to the territory between fact and fiction here. I'm going to ask the inevitable question of the line between autobiography and fiction in a writer's work.

I recall the lines in the second novella, The Lover, when Damon is recalling the Swiss Jerome: "?Because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it's all I know and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life."

Galgut answers: "All writers are drawing on their own lives to some extent, though, of course, some experiences sit closer to home than others, as I hope this book makes clear. I think the borders between fiction and non-fiction, imagination and 'truth', are extremely porous. Sometimes there's no distinction at all."

The line dissolves: in the second novella, Galgut writes that, "a journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it's made? things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory."

And memory remains - through all its twists and turns, what is remembered one way one day is remembered a completely different way in another light, or in another emotion. Galgut's In a Strange Room offers a remarkable encounter with memory and meaning of travel and the games we unwittingly play as we attempt to make sense of the knotted strands of our journeys, both external and deep into our own selves.In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the 2010 MAN Booker Prize.

The winner, announced on Tuesday, was London author Howard Jacobson, for his novel The Finkler Question.

Published October 14 2010 The Star Tonight and in Pretoria News

China memoir pulses with charm and pathos

Cracking China: A memoir of our first three years in China by Rod Mackenzie
Knowledge Thirst Media, R195

There's no surer way of knowing you've arrived in a foreign country and culture than to be greeted with the words that it's 11am, so it's time for lunch. Lunch? Yes lunch. It's just the beginning of the many differences that will confront and assault the sense of normality of Rod Mackenzie and his wife, known affectionately as the Chook.

They've arrived in China to teach English. All the way from South Africa to rain-soaked England, where a so-called career as a used car salesman doesn't pan out as expected. Next stop Shaoxing, China.

With his shaved head and larger-than-average girth, Mackenzie stands out like a sore thumb and is soon compared with pictures of Buddha. No matter. His infectious, bubbling personality soon wins over his high school students, who start to learn, not by rote, as has been the norm, but by laughter, fun and games.

First lesson for Mackenzie, memorising the names of his pupils, who have all given each other English names, which are rather prosaic and reveal the vast gaps that open up between languages.

There's Fish, Star, Ice Sucker - who got the name because "ice is nice to lick in summer" - and a female student who calls herself Boy, simply because she likes boys; then there's Sunshine, Answer, WC, Pig-pig and Twin A and B.

Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes. One day a TV crew arrives to shoot footage of the English teacher at work. Walking up to Fish, Mackenzie asks in front of the cameras, "How are you today, Fish?"

Mackenzie writes: "Fish was so mesmerised by the TV crew that he lost the precious bit of English he knew. His jaw wavered uncertainly. His friends translated my question for him, a phatic question he would have learned in his first English lessons at school four years ago... Bill, my next victim, fared far worse... he took one look at us, mouth agape, and ran away."

There are other vexations brought on by living in a foreign culture. When Mackenzie and his wife use what they think is a vase to put flowers in, the guffawing reactions of their Chinese friends enlighten them. They've been using Chinese versions of chamber pots.

And then there's the night they cook for their friends and wonder why they are eyeing the food with visible fear. "What was wrong with baked potatoes and a simple omelette? It was the same as a bowl of fish heads being repugnant to me while everyone else held the decapitated delicacies between their chopsticks and sucked and chewed on them until even the forlorn, round fish eyes disappeared into their mouths."

But there's pathos between the humour, and when Mackenzie and his wife pass cages of dogs, they try not to think what their final destination might be.

And through it all, Mackenzie, also an accomplished published poet, captures the strangeness of life in China through verse.

Cracking China pulses with charm and with Mackenzie's obvious love for the country that eventually cracks open for him. Read it for a foreigner's glimpse of a land that captivates, frustrates and delights, and, as always, fascinates.

Published in Pretoria News, July 5 2010 and The Star Tonight July 1 2010

What's Missing, what's found

Missing by Beverly Rycroft
(Modjaji Books, R145)

I picked up Beverly Rycroft's debut collection of poetry, Missing, while waiting for a flight home. Airports are never a good time to read - announcements shatter your concentration repeatedly.
But, from the first poem, I was drawn in and found myself devouring these poems hungrily. Rycroft takes the intimate nature of her life and shapes the experience into deeply-crafted works.

Much of the poetry in this collection is concerned with her struggle with breast cancer, a seemingly grim topic, but don't let that put you off. Her poems are heartfelt and you don't have to be a woman, or to have suffered breast cancer, to have these poems talk to you.

The subject in Friday: Diagnosis is cancer, and the words are transformed into sharp, shocking weapons: The telephone, once a domestic creature/has turned into a raptor/? The Doctor's voice spinning from it/ steamed warm/and sticky as fresh entrails:/malignancy/ chemotherapy.

And yet there is humour, too, in Rycroft's examination of the disease. Here, in David's Visit David tells her that: in his Aunt's day/breast prosthetics were bolstered/with bird seed./After a sweaty game of tennis/one afternoon/she found/her bosom had begun to sprout.

The equally intimate nature of love, marriage, togetherness, and the delights of having and watching children grow up, is another topic explored compellingly in these poems.

These themes coalesce in the poem, If this bed could talk, in which the narrator speaks of a bed which has hosted love "lying together", a youngest child who has colonised the bed, a mother-in-law urging a husband to eat, a daughter singing, and a woman waiting.

Meanwhile, in What I learned from you the poet writes of a marriage in which she learns that: a brown Gomma-Gomma bedroom suite/isn't the worst way to start a marriage. But what she learns is also bittersweet, that in the end: if we really had to/you and I might/just/manage without each other. And then, gratitude for life: "laughter/good friends/my love/ this poem is the heart of an achingly simple poem: Bequest.

Rycroft's poetry is very accessible, vital and necessary: a fine debut.

Published The Star Tonight, October 7 2010

Tenderly distilling time's essence

Homing: Short Stories Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi: R170) Henrietta Rose-Innes's debut collection of short fiction spans stories written from the mid- 1990s to the present day, and is a welcome addition to her work. She has also written two novels, with a third forthcoming next year. There are several moving and memorable stories, distilled essences of a particular time in the characters' lives, highlighting a pivotal point upon which a realisation is made and a life turns, for better or worse. Many of the stories take place in Rose-Innes's home town, Cape Town, or in locales near the city, and the city becomes a subtle background to the themes explored. Rose-Innes's work is highly visual and when I recall the first story in this powerful collection, 'Homing', I immediately think in terms of the pictures painted by this writer. Homing is a strange, haunting story about retired couple, Nona and Ray, who happen to live a few doors away from a face-brick retirement home, a home both suppose they will eventually move into. But then the home closes and in its place "reared the pink backside of a new hotel". The building wreaks all sorts of changes, including altering the play of light during the day, inverting the normal order of things. Then Nona decides to spend a night in the hotel, telling Ray she is going away. She secretly strolls down the road to stay in this new monstrosity, from where she will be able to view their humble home from the vantage point of this new swish place. Enter a flock of homing pigeons who surreally surround Nona in her hotel room. Home is indeed altered when you look at it from afar. All sorts of faults become evident and you yourself are changed by the experience. 'The Leopard Trap' is another strangely disaffecting story which revolves around Daniela who's "taken to leaving town when things got bad", escaping from the violent, unexplainable rages of her husband Thom. While away, staying at a bed and breakfast near Sutherland, she chances on a leopard trap and her fear is visceral, animal-like: "Her cheek touched stone. And all at once it grasped her: the horror of the trapped creature, of the trap, this box precisely measured out for her own length and breadth?" The fear dissolves and she stares coolly at the trap within the landscape. Daniela returns to her husband, as she must, as she always does, in this story in which a trap to "take a living cat and turn it into bones and pelt" becomes a startling metaphor for a marriage trapped within itself. 'Burning Buildings' is another story which examines the bounds of a relationship, this time between Hein and Anna. Hein is into matchstick building, constructing elaborate buildings and castles, which are then burnt outdoors, the couple watching the towers of destruction, bound by their mutual fascination, Hein's streak of destruction uniting them and yet also tearing a rift through their lives. This is a story in which the props do not trap the lovers, but instead, ultimately set them free. 'Tremble' takes place within the confines of a singles weekend. Erin is only on this cheesy, getting-to-know-you jaunt because her friend Alice persuades her to accompany her. The place is luxurious, safe, framed by mountainside vineyards, "and everyone was white, middle class, of an age. That was, she supposed, what she had requested. She'd known these people all her life". The past collides with the present as Erin finds herself reaching across the age gap that separates her from a teenage boy. This is a story about a certain age - that gap between youth and before the onset of middle age, when time may be running out, and people are burdened with "excess weight, the first strands of grey" and "caution and worldliness". And yet, time to try again: a story that probes the spaces between wanting and not having. There is again an element of the surreal, which nevertheless edges back into reality, in 'Bad Places'. Three young people have attended a party dressed as mermaids. Elly wakes up on the beach, her friends asleep, the blue pigment having seeped into the sand, cobalt skin bleeding into beige. Leaving her friends sleeping, she encounters a "bergie" in his makeshift beach hut - and the few moments of that encounter will shape and alter her forever. The final story in the collection is the tour de force and the Caine Prize-winning 'Poison'. In this excellent apocalyptic story, Lynn finds herself fleeing Cape Town after a mysterious disaster has resulted in the city becoming contaminated, with residents fleeing in panic as fast and as far as they can. Lynn lands up at a near-deserted petrol station and finds herself stranded in this empty world which is "poison violet and puce". Sometimes there really is nothing left to do but to abandon yourself to the violent, apocalyptic worlds you find yourself stranded in. A mere telling of the events doesn't do justice to a story that is haunting in its simplicity and continues to resonate. It's a story of extraordinary power: a description that fits much of Rose-Innes's short fiction in this excellent volume. Published in The Star Tonight, October 28 2010

Honest awakening

The Au Pair: A True Story
by Michele Macfarlane

(Jacana, R139.95)

Michele Macfarlane is a married mother of three living in Cape Town as this book opens. Happily partnered with Peter, a chiropodist, they lead a seemingly idyllic life. However, her eyesight is failing due to the onset of retinitis pigmentosa.

Macfarlane hires an au pair to help her care for the children and drive them around as she can no longer do so. Within a few pages Macfarlane is both celebrating her 37th birthday in her parents' luxury penthouse and suffering - and I use the word advisedly - the effects of her crush on her au pair, a woman of 23, Marizette.

Suffering, because Macfarlane believes herself to be straight: she is married, settled, her life following the ordinary, well-travelled paths of heterosexuality. There are niggling questions, of course. She was abused as a child, and can never quite rid herself of that "yucky" feeling she experiences when she's intimate with her husband, and there was that incident as a university student with the girlfriend of her brother, Ian? but these are just niggles. Or are they?

Macfarlane is surrounded by well-meaning close friends and members of her extended family, and sometimes supported as she tries to talk herself out of a crush on this much younger woman, who is in a relationship with a partner in any case.

Most of the book's chapters open with long e-mails written by Macfarlane to her close friend Sara, who lives in England with her own husband and family and is, ironically, also questioning her own sexuality and finding herself attracted to women.

The e-mails then set the scene for the actions that unfold in the main narrative.

The writing style is deceptively light, easy to read, set in the present tense, yet the story that unfolds is anything but light, nor is it easy. The events will impact on all those involved in the lives of these two women - family, friends, and of course Macfarlane's three children.

The book unflinchingly tells the story of the emotional rollercoaster of discovering that you're gay, and needing to leave a marriage to be true to yourself, and yet how living your own truth can be devastating to those around you, most especially Macfarlane's husband, Peter, who is initially broken and embittered through the process.

And yet, as Macfarlane makes clear, her gay orientation is not a choice, and not something that can be switched off, denied or ignored.

In one of her e-mails to Sara she discusses her attraction and the reasons for it: "The point is that nothing will stop me feeling the way I do about Marizette. I'm crazy about her.

"Of course I've asked myself over and over again how it's possible at such a relatively late stage in my life to discover I'm a lesbian.

"And I don't have an answer to that. There were many tell-tale signs? and again, I think: how could I not have known?"

And yet the toll taken on her family and her own sense of self-hood makes the guilt acute: "Sara, I feel like such a bad person. I've always liked myself and now I don't any more. I can't believe I'm hurting my children. All I ever wanted was for them to have a happy childhood."

Macfarlane is brave in many ways - for agonising over her choices, and ultimately choosing what will make her happy, a decision that embraces her new-found sexuality, a sexuality that has been denied or, suppressed, one that has left her unable to find satisfaction with men.

Brave, too, is Macfarlane's choosing to reveal so many intimate details of the lesbian sex between her and Marizette - descriptions which are quite graphic at times, and refreshingly so.

There's also a sense of fun here, and the scene in which the two buy a strap-on is infused with humour. Macfarlane is also unsparing in her depiction of the emotional difficulties each experience and the role of therapy in helping to diffuse some of these problems.

The Au Pair is a gripping, compellingly told story, and Macfarlane and her family are also brave enough to have the details of their lives thrown open within its pages.

Ultimately, too, there's a happy ending that you welcome as a reader, but what this book also makes clear is that even happily-ever-after requires some emotional work and rare understanding.

This is a necessary and welcome addition to the local landscape of memoir writing.

Published in The Star Tonight December 9 2010

Short stories long on intrigue

Stories: All-New Tales
edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
(Headline Review, R185)

Short stories: we may lump them together in one big homogenous thing. Sure, there are differences, but basically a story is a story, not so? Yet, there are as many types of stories as there are say, novels, from literary to thriller, romance to adventure.

I admit that I like my stories rather literary: within my own strictly defined limits, characters emerge from page, grow, become aware, and carry this awareness of something defining them off the page.

However, the stories in this anthology stretched me somewhat. Horror rubs shoulders with fantasy, new vampires sprout a special tooth to suck blood or develop a fetish for chickens, and the past develops new underwater dimensions.

There are a few "literary" stories within this volume - in which ordinary people love, laugh and die and there isn't a vampire or strange being in sight - but the majority of these tales plumb depths which I don't normally reach in my own reading of the genre.

Enjoy might be too facile a word to describe my experience of these stories. At times I was horrified and disgusted, I was intrigued, I was admiring.

I kept on reading, for the most part, because, as the editors Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio write in their introduction, "what we wanted to read were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. And yes, we wanted good writing."

The stories in this collection are polished, crafted, well-edited gems, they keep you turning the page, and the images created in your mind live on long after the reading.

Roddy Doyle's gruesome Blood is a case in point turns on a husband's sudden taste for the red stuff, to the point where he takes to murdering his neighbour's chickens while trying to hide this lust from his spouse. The surprise of the story is revealed right at the end? and it's a surprise to the husband himself.

Blood lust is the focus of Walter Mosley's Juvenal Nyx, a meandering story of how a perfectly ordinary man, a member of a Black Students Union, is turned into a man who lives by night and alone, surviving on the blood of others. This long tale also shows what happens when he attempts to live again in the world, emerging from the darkness of his solitary vampireness.

Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the genre, contributes Fossil-Figures, a strange tale of two twin brothers. One is strong and healthy, a popular A-grader who will go into politics with his winning smile and winning ways; his brother is sickly, weak, a victim of his brother's avaricious greed in the womb, or so the narrative suggests. The twins grow up, their lives dissect, diverge, then ultimately come together. A quietly powerful story, yet there's gothic horror wrapped up in the package.

Violence and murder form the spine of a number of exceptional stories.

There's Neil Gaiman's The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a story set some time ago in which two men set out in search of treasure, and yet mistrust will dog them and splinter through.

Lawrence Block's Catch and Release is equally chilling in its presentation of a serial killer, while Jeffrey Deaver's excellent The Therapist is a horrifying yet gripping tale of man in the vice of mental illness.

I loved the fantastical Goblin Lake by Michael Swanwick, in which a man journeys to the bottom of a lake, to emerge with truths and realisations about the nature of paths taken, and not taken.

Meanwhile the narrator in Kat Howard's A Life in Fictions suffers from the fact that her lover keeps writing her into his stories, and thus influencing the course of her own reality. A mind-bending story, and delicious in the telling.

Equally fun was Diana Wynne Jones's Samantha's Diary set in the year 2?, in which the young narrator Samantha writes wittily about a secret admirer who keeps sending her live birds, from swans to pigeons and a partridge or two.

Finally, I also thoroughly enjoyed Michael Moorcock's simply titled Stories in which the lives of a group of friends, from their 20s on to life in their 60s is told in simple language, language that swoops and falls from event to event.

A real delight.

Published The Star Tonight December 9 2010