Views and Reviews

Write your memoir


At the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, the most memorable session I attended was a workshop on memoir-writing run by Dawn Garisch. Dawn describes herself as ‘part-time writer, part-time trainer, part-time doctor’. She is a published author and poet who teaches others while writing herself and practising as a doctor. She is the type of person you warm to immediately – sincere, practical and open. Dawn’s approach to writing is physical and visceral. She told us to think back to a scene that we would like to write about and to close our eyes and see ourselves at that time. ‘Get into your body, into the feeling. Remember how your body felt at the time. Is there a colour pervading the scene? Can you smell anything? What can you hear? Touch something and experience how it feels.’ I closed...

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Review of ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith


Words that, to me, describe the themes of this story are: visceral, mental, sensual, maniacal, delusional. It’s a book about madness and sexuality. The book comprises three sections. The first, The Vegetarian, is narrated by Mr Cheong, the husband of Yeong-hye (she is the central character in the book). Mr Cheong always opts for average in everything, including his choice of a wife, and he is proud of that. “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.” Yeong-hye was a ‘normal’ wife for five years, but then she...

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Review of ‘I am Pandarus’ by Michiel Heyns


I started this book with trepidation as I have never been a scholar of medieval literature and I know very little about Greek mythology, but I was soon caught up in the mercurial storytelling of Michiel Heyns. This is a story in two parts – it moves between modern-day London and the ancient city of Troy during its ten-year siege by the Greeks. If that sounds far-fetched, then prepare yourself for the fact that Pandarus, the mythical and heroic Trojan warrior, is the protagonist in both eras. The modern-day Pandarus approaches the narrator of the book (a publisher) in Halfway to Heaven, a gay bar in London. The narrator’s lover has just left him for a young Greek man and said narrator is intrigued by the amount that the tall, lean, pony-tailed stranger knows about him. The stranger introduces himself...

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Review of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy


Twenty years ago I went into raptures over The God of Small Things, the 1997 Booker Prize winner by Arundhati Roy. In 2017, like many other hapless bibliophiles, I rushed off to buy my copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Roy, her first novel since The God of Small Things. I was expecting more of the same, but better, due to the twenty years of practice the author has had in between. It started well enough, with a cast of quirky characters, beautifully described and brought to life through Roy’s colourful storytelling ability. There was Anjum, a hermaphrodite and hijra, who lived in a hijra commune called the Khwabgah but then left to live in a graveyard, where she founded the Jannat Guest House; there was Saddam Hussain, who got around Delhi on a white horse and always...

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Review of ‘The Schooldays of Jesus’ by JM Coetzee


It's a quick read, made so by the spare, simple prose. But don't be deceived by the apparent simplicity of the prose - it's a veritable minefield of allegory. The story focuses on a young boy, Davíd, and his adoptive parents, Simón and Inés. One isn’t sure how it happened but it seems that Simón took on responsibility for the child and then chose Inés to mother him, and Inés agreed. Simón and Inés don’t appear to be in a relationship; in fact at a point in the book he moves out of the ‘family’ home into his own lodgings. They all seem to live in some socialistic town (Estrella) where they never seem to want for food or money (not that it’s in abundance – it just seems it isn’t an issue). Throughout the book we are told that...

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Review of ‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson


A friend turned up at a coffee meeting with a book she said I had to read – Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. The book was first published in 1981. According to my friend, the book had an enormous impact on her life. Housekeeping is a shimmery, incandescent sort of novel – you can’t quite put your finger on it. The story stays ahead of you, slightly out of reach. As Doris Lessing said “This is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.” The language used and the choice of words are beautiful and mellifluous and lead me to believe that the author is also a poet (although Wikipedia doesn’t say so). The story is of two sisters in a small town in north-eastern America, notable for its lake and railroad bridge. The book opens,...

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Review of ‘Possession’ by AS Byatt


This book won the Booker prize in 1990 – that is why I decided to read it. Whether I enjoyed it or not is something of an enigma. The story is split into two different ages – that of the Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, and that of the modern-day researchers, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Roland is studying the work of Ash, and Maud that of LaMotte. Their paths cross when Roland tries to investigate a reference he found to a meeting between Ash and LaMotte that suggests there was a liaison between the two. The book contains a great deal of poetry written by Ash and LaMotte in Victorian style (as they are fictional characters, it is all written by the author, Byatt). I found the poetry difficult to follow and tedious to read and I...

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Review of ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ by Peter Høeg


This book was written by Danish author Peter Høeg and was first published in 1992 in Danish and in 1993 in English. It is a dense and complicated story with beautiful imagery. Throughout the story the reader is learning about snow, ice, weather, geology, Greenlanders and much more. The protagonist of the story is Smilla Jaspersen, a woman of 37 who spent her childhood in Greenland with a Greenlandic mother and a Danish father. Her mother is a hunter who is portrayed as being as strong as a man. Smilla idolises her. Her parents divorce after a few years of marriage and her father goes back to Denmark. When her mother dies in an accident, Smilla is forced to go and live in Denmark with her wealthy father. She misses Greenland and her mother terribly and hates the supercilious attitude...

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Review of ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James


This title is misleading – the book is neither brief (686 pages of small print) nor were there only seven killings. It felt like there were dozens of corpses littering the landscape. It is telling that several of the book’s endorsements mentioned Quentin Tarantino, known for his violent and graphic movies. Some of the words that I jotted down to describe the book are: crude, angry, violent, hateful, aggressive, male-dominated, depraved. I also found it confusing and difficult to follow. The story revolves around the attempted assassination in 1976 of Bob Marley and describes the political tensions in Jamaica at the time and the involvement of criminal gangs and thugs, assisting the politicians in their dirty work. It also suggests that the CIA was closely involved in the violence, through supplying training to the criminals in how to use guns....

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Review of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas


The Count of Monte Cristo is a swashbuckling, cracker of a novel. I would not normally have chosen to read a book as long as this (1462 pages) or as old as this (published 1844-45) but I was compelled to do so as it was the choice of the book club that I belong to. And I wasn’t disappointed. The story starts of on a happy, high note in 1815 with the French hero, Edmund Dantès, just having come back to Marseilles from a successful sea voyage. He is a sailor and about to marry the love of his life – a beautiful, fiery Catalan maiden. However, a trio of dark forces, in the form of a colleague, a romantic rival and a prosecutor, contrive to use him for their own ends and advancement, and poor Edmund ends up in jail for life, confined to a dungeon. There he meets the...

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