Review: Burger’s Daughter, by Nadine Gordimer

My first experience with Nadine Gordimer was her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Conservationist.  I found the book and Gordimer’s writing oddly fascinating, and in said my review, “despite my rather lukewarm reaction to this particular novel, I will definitely be reading more of her work.”  This year I finally got around to it, first with None to Accompany Me (read my review), and more recently, Burger’s Daughter.  And now I think I’ve had enough of Gordimer to last me a very long time.

Burger’s Daughter explores the idea of legacy through the character of Rosa Burger.  After the death of her parents, both South African activists, Rosa tries to come to terms with what it means to be the daughter of such notable public figures.  She is accustomed to dealing with the authorities, and with having to keep certain activities and relationships secret or risk arrest.  She never knows whether people are interested in her for who she is, or for whose daughter she is.

That sounds kind of interesting, doesn’t it?  Well it was, up to a point.  But  I missed the prerequisite course in South African politics and the issues of the day, and this time Gordimer’s writing completely failed to engage me.  I read about 1/3 of this book but it was just too much of a struggle.



Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

One evening Larry Ott returns home from work to find a masked intruder, who shoots him and leaves him for dead.  Fortunately local constable Silas Jones had asked a colleague to stop by Larry’s place, and they got to him just in time.  Larry’s life hung in the balance for several days.  During that time we follow the hunt for his assailant, but more importantly we learn a lot more about Larry, Silas, and their lives in rural Chabot, Mississippi.

Larry has been a recluse all his adult life.  As a teenager he was accused of raping and murdering a girl he took on a date.  She never returned home, her body was never found, and Larry refused to talk about it.  While he was never charged with the crime, he was ostracized by the community.  He took over his father’s auto repair shop, but his only customers were people from out-of-town, just passing through.

Silas spent his boyhood in Chabot with his mother.  They lived in a one-room hut on the Ott’s property.  Quite by happenstance, Larry and Silas became friends.  Secret friends, because Larry was white and Silas, black, and public friendships just weren’t possible.  Larry’s father put a stop to it in a humiliating and abusive way.  Eventually Silas and his mother moved so he could become the star baseball player at a different high school, and the boys lost touch.  Even after Silas returned to Chabot as Constable, their paths didn’t cross.  Until one day when Silas received a voice mail from Larry, just asking him to call.  It was this message that prompted Silas’ visit a few days later, just after Larry was shot.

At the time of the shooting, Silas was also investigating another young girl’s disappearance, some 20 years after the incident that changed Larry’s life forever.  Everyone in town thinks Larry committed a crime again.  That is, everyone but Silas.  Slowly, we learn the basis for Silas’ opinion, as we also uncover clues to Larry’s assailant and the girl’s disappearance.

I was completely caught up in this book, and at first it was because of the crime to be solved.  But Tom Franklin revealed those details very slowly, while painting vivid portraits of Larry and Silas and filling in their back story.  Eventually the shooting and the girl’s disappearance became just secondary mysteries; in fact, both were actually pretty easy to solve.  This book was much more about the mystery of these two men’s lives, and the profound influence of past events.  Again, Franklin revealed details slowly, and I often found myself rereading passages to make sure I was putting the pieces together correctly.  The result was a moving account of friendship, betrayal, and hope.

Review: None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer

Set in barely post-apartheid South Africa, this is primarily the story of Vera Stark, who has spent her career working for a legal foundation as an advocate for housing rights.  Her longevity makes her an unofficial executive director, and she commands tremendous respect.  While Vera and her work are at the center of this book, it is also a moving portrait of two marriages.  Vera is a strong woman, and fiercely independent.  Her husband Ben needs her more than she needs him.  Vera’s past figures heavily in her present, and in her relationship with Ben.  Vera and Ben have very liberal views about race, and are long-time friends with a black South African couple, Sibongile (Sally) and Didymus Maqoma.  Sally and Didy have only recently returned from exile, and in a surprise turn of events Sally is elected to an important post, and Didy finds himself on the sidelines.

Several threads run concurrently through this book.  One of Vera’s black colleagues, Oupa, shows the reader a different layer of black society from that of Didy and Sally, and presents one of the more moving parts of the novel.  Vera and Ben’s adult children have relationships and challenges of their own, and intersect with the parents’ lives in interesting ways.  Sally and Didy’s daughter Mpho is a teenager, causing her parents angst as she comes of age.  And then there’s Vera and Ben, whose relationship appears unshakable, but is actually threatened by a number of forces.

Nadine Gordimer also has a lot to say about the political structure taking shape in her country at the time of publication (1994), and its effect on everyday people.  I suspect there were nuances in the text that went completely over my head.  Deeper knowledge would have helped me appreciate the political context underpinning this study of characters and relationships.

Review: Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman

Inside the courtroom, rows of long windows ran along two walls. They were closed against the noise of the square, and the yellow shades were drawn, but midday light filtered through, cooking the air. An American flag and another for the state of Alabama hung limp on either side of the judge’s bench. … Instead of a jury box, two rows of chairs that swiveled and tipped to allow the jurors to make themselves comfortable were bolted to the floor. In front of each row, a brass pipe, also attached to the floor, served as a footrest. Spittoons stood at regular intervals, each surrounded by the familiar corona of hardened tobacco juice and saliva. (p. 208)

As the title implies, this novel is about the Scottsboro boys, a famous US civil rights case from the 1930s.  A group of black men — boys, really — were accused of raping two white women on a train.  The case was fraught with racism and questionable legal processes that denied the boys a fair trial.  Appeals continued for several years.  Author Ellen Feldman describes these events through Alice Whittier, a fictional news reporter, and Ruby Bates, one of the two white women.  She paints a vivid picture of Alabama in the 1930s: the climate, the people, and the extreme racism.

Readers unfamiliar with the case will enjoy Feldman’s ability to bring history to life.  As historical fiction, however, it doesn’t quite pass muster.  The best of this genre (or, at least, the ones I’ve most enjoyed) go beyond the basic facts and delve deep into the historic characters, embellishing where facts are scarce.  Scottsboro provides factual information comparable to Wikipedia’s article on the Scottsboro boys.  But Alice Whittier is one-dimensional; a vehicle to advance the plot and fill the time between trials.  Her storyline was like a superfluous wrapper around the heart of the book.  I wasn’t interested in her romantic relationships, or the skeletons in her family’s closet, because I knew them to be complete fiction.  This would have been a better book had Feldman used an actual journalist in the story.  Instead the result is something not quite history, and not quite historical fiction.

Review: Before you Suffocate your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans

This book is a collection of eight short stories with the unifying element of young, African-American or mixed race characters trying to find their way in modern American culture.  When I read short stories, inevitably some affect me more than others; this book was no exception.   The best of this bunch were:

  • Virgins: two 16-year-old girls, tired of small-town life, go clubbing in New York City and find themselves growing up a little too fast.
  • Snakes: Tara, a mixed race girl, spends a summer with her white grandmother and cousin.  She finds herself in the middle of long-standing family tension, and one small but dramatic act results in years of emotional pain.
  • Someone Ought to Tell Her:  Georgie, recently returned from Iraq, offers to babysit his ex-girlfriend’s daughter when her regular childcare arrangements fall through.  The arrangement fills an emotional void for both Georgie and the daughter, but ultimately results in a difficult conflict.

Unfortunately, in a couple of stories I found glaring factual inaccuracies which detracted from the author’s credibility.  Sometimes this completely ruins my reading experience.  In this case, I loved Evans’ voice, and her ability to quickly create pictures of her characters in my imagination.  I’m sure we will see more from this promising young author.

Review: Remembering Babylon, by David Malouf

Set in mid-19th century colonial Australia, Remembering Babylon explores issues of race and class through a young man named Gemmy Fairley.  Gemmy turns up in a Queensland village, seemingly out of nowhere.  He is white, but “appears” black and speaks the language of native people.  He is most comfortable communicating with the three children who first discovered him, members of the McIvor family.  Through various means of communication, Gemmy shares his background as a ragamuffin boy tossed from a ship, who lived with aboriginal people for 16 years.  The McIvor family take him in, providing for his basic needs and giving him work to do around their property.  Gemmy baffles the community:

He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks — at thirteen, was it? — he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?

They looked at their children, even the smallest of them chattering away, entirely at home in their tongue, then heard the mere half-dozen words of English this fellow could cough up, and even those so mismanaged and distorted you could barely guess what he was on about, and you had to put to yourself the harder question. Could you lose it? Not just language, but it.  It.

For the fact was, when you looked at him sometimes he was not white. His skin might be but not his features. The whole cast of his face gave him the look of one of Them. How was that, then?  (p.40)

But Remembering Babylon isn’t so much Gemmy’s story as everyone else’s.  Janet, Meg, and Lachlan are forever changed after finding Gemmy.  Several settlers actively work to oust Gemmy, showing their true selves and straining Jock and Ellen McIvor’s relations with them.  And just beyond the hubbub lives Mrs. Hutchence, an eccentric woman who offers love and kindness to everyone she meets. Malouf introduced every type of character imaginable: angry, bigoted settlers, a young schoolmaster, a preacher nearing the end of his career, etc.  Most were not as well-developed as the McIvor family, and after a while I found the frequent new faces a distraction.  The ending was also strange, jumping ahead in time while leaving a number of loose ends back in the 19th century.  Still, this was a worthwhile read, an interesting study of human nature, set in a historic period I enjoy reading about.

Review: The White Family, by Maggie Gee

Alfred White has had a long career as a London park keeper.  His days are spent patrolling the park, monitoring its condition and making sure visitors adhere to park rules.  Alfred is close to retirement, and has seen a lot of change over the years. He longs for the Britain of his youth, during and after World War II. He is especially upset by the influx of foreigners, changing the ethnic mix of his London neighborhood and, consequently, the park visitors.

One day Alfred collapses on the job and is hospitalized.  His sudden weakness shocks his wife and adult children, who have grown accustomed to Alfred’s firm, controlling hand.  His adult children have all gone their separate ways, but are brought back into contact at Alfred’s bedside.  Darren is an established journalist living in the US, and is on his third marriage.  Shirley is in a relationship with a black man, which caused a rift with her father.  Dirk has been unable to establish an independent adult life, and lives at home while working in a corner shop.  He has developed disturbing extremist political and racial views.

May, the wife and mother, held this crew together over the years.  Like many women of her generation, her husband made all the decisions.  When Alfred went into hospital, May found she couldn’t even withdraw money from the bank on her own.  But May is also strong inside, in her own way, and she has a suppressed intellect that remains an important part of her life:

She always liked to have a book in her bag. In case she got stuck. In case she got lost. Or did she feel lost without her books? There wasn’t any point, but she liked to have one with her, a gentle weight nudging her shoulder, keeping her company through the wind, making her more solid, more substantial, less likely to be blown away, less alone. More — a person. (p. 19)

Through short chapters narrated by different family members, Maggie Gee develops the White family’s history and the nature of the parent-child and sibling relationships.  Each of the children bear scars from their father’s discipline and temper.  Darren appears successful on the outside, but is deeply wounded inside.  Shirley has been unable to have children, and struggles with issues of faith.  Dirk is a ticking time bomb, prone to alcohol-infused bouts of temper as he acts out his resentment towards anyone better off than himself.  Alfred and May, for all their flaws, have shared a long and loving marriage, and are likeable in their own ways.

This book is not for the faint of heart.  There’s a lot of sadness, as the entire family copes with Alfred’s medical condition.  May considers, for the first time, that Alfred may not always be there for her.  Alfred struggles with weakness & infirmity.  Each of the children relive their childhood and their relationship with Alfred, and rather than bond together each of them struggles individually.  There are also many disturbing moments, particularly Gee’s portrayal of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.  This would have been a 4.5-star book were it not for a too-tidy denouement about Shirley which struck me as both unrealistic  and unnecessary.  Still, this is a well-crafted story, with a strong emotional pull and an intense and startling climax.

Review: A Dry White Season, by André Brink

Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon.  When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide.  He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and corruption emerges.  Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted.  His family can’t understand his passion for justice.  Here’s Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:

“They killed Gordon,” he said.  “First they killed Jonathan, then him.  How can they get away with it?”

“If they’d been guilty the court would have said so.  I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon’s death, Ben.  But it’s no use dwelling on it.”  She pressed his hand more urgently.  “It’s all over and done with now.  You’re home again. Now you can settle down like before.” (p. 137)

But Ben can’t settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences.  He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues.   The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:

The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies.  … It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn’t mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn’t been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn’t behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been.  (p. 162)

André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs.  But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own.  In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.

Review: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

I couldn’t get into this book, no matter how hard I tried.  I’m not even sure what to say in a review!

The book opens with a middle-aged man, Julian Treslove, getting mugged one night after a dinner with his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.  Sam and Libor are recently widowed; Julian has gone from one woman to the next, leaving the detritus of relationships — including two now-grown children — in his wake.  Sam and Libor are Jews, which fascinates Julian.  As he recovers from the shock of being mugged, his fascination turns into an obsession.  He attempts to “become Jewish,” although in more of a cultural than religious sense.

At first, I thought perhaps I just didn’t understand the Jewish cultural references.  And I really didn’t like the characters.  Then I read a review that gave me hope, saying the second half of the book was better.  I persevered.  And it was better, but not enough to salvage it for me.  It was a very “talky” book, with endless conversation about both big ideas and minutiae.  I found the chapters devoted to Libor the most moving, as he mourned the recent loss of his wife.  But Sam was a stuffy prat, and Julian was a selfish jerk.

I normally enjoy Booker Prize winners.  But not this one.

Review: The Boy Next Door, by Irene Sabatini

Set in post-colonial Zimbabwe, The Boy Next Door is the story of Lindiwe Bishop, a quiet 14-year-old girl of mixed race.  She and her family live in what was previously an all-white suburb.  Ian McKenzie, the boy in the title, is a few years older, of British (white) descent, and when the story opens, has just been arrested for setting his stepmother on fire.  Despite, or perhaps because of, parental warnings, Lindiwe is fascinated by Ian.  When he is cleared of charges and returns home after serving a reduced sentence, the two strike up a clandestine friendship.

As we follow Lindiwe and Ian over more than a decade, the focus is on their relationship, set against a backdrop of a country crumbling under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial rule.  Ian and Lindiwe’s relationship is complex, compounded by the racial tensions prevalent across the country and an intricate set of relationships between and within their families.  As the two mature, they become more aware of family secrets that have shaped their lives.  Ian struggled with demons resulting from his unstable home life.  And I felt Lindiwe’s pain every time she discovered a truth about her past, and every time she returned to her home town of Bulawayo, only to find it even worse off than the last time.   They made an unlikely couple; most of the time their relationship seemed unhealthy, and yet they would never have survived the political unrest without one another.

So much of the story revolves around these secrets, it is difficult to write a review that does justice to this book.  Irene Sabatini reveals the truth in tiny fragments, like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.  I’m not even sure I caught everything, and even after rereading a specific section several times, there’s still one aspect that remains unexplained.  This is exactly the effect I think Sabatini was trying to create, and it makes for a gripping and emotional read.  This is an impressive debut novel, and I hope to see more from Irene Sabatini.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 2

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