Saturday, 14 November 2015

Welcome to "Critical Diaries"

Welcome to "Critical Diaries"

Welcome to "Critical Diaries" - what I hope will be an on-going series of brief posts and discussions about books, reading, cultural artefacts, universities, pedagogy, cats, and whatever else stimulates a restless mind.  It will definitely not be about ME - no seamy revelations here.

To begin everywhere and nowhere.  I have just finished reading the latest novel by a one-time student of ours at Rhodes University, Grahamstown: Diane Awerbuck's Home Remedies.  Diane has already won a prize or two for her fiction, but with this it seems she has unquestionably come into her own.  What an intelligent, nuanced, richly textured and ultimately compelling read.  It is at once an irreverent (even at points outrageous) sidelight on the Saartie Baartman saga - the returning of that poor person's remains from the display cabinets of a prurient Europe to reburial in South Africa - a densely-observed portrayal of Fish Hoek, and a moving story of a mother's life and traumas.  

Home Remedies is one of just a number of I think deft and insightful novels by both the established and the younger generations, moving beyond the blunt politicisations of current South African discourse, without ignoring them.  We would do better reading these works than the newspapers, in many ways!  I can't begin to keep up, but I have been able of late to read some other local women's novels, all of them fascinating.  Claire Robertson's The Spiral House offers two narrative strands.  I couldn't quite fathom the link between them, and the second strand didn't interest me as much as the first.  This is the voice of a young woman of the early Cape Dutch settlement, of Malay origin, trapped in a condition of near slavery without formally being enslaved.  There were in fact quite a number of such women, of rather indeterminate legal status, often better educated than their farmer-'owners'.  While the voice Robertson invents for this character is just that - invented, an English she could never have actually spoken - somehow it feels exactly right and authentic: a wonderful achievement.  

The Cape seems to be The Place these days: Henrietta Rose-Innes' latest novel, The Green Lion, is a slightly futuristic take on a Cape Town cut off from its natural mountain-slope nature by a substantial (not quite impenetrable) fence, with the remnants of an old zoo and its leonine inhabitant.  I thought Henrietta's earlier novels, Shark's Egg and Nineveh still had the feel of a writer finding her feet, but this one is very deft, inventive, funny, moving.  It also moves into another apparently burgeoning focus of attention: human-animal relations with a touch of the magical thrown in: Lauren Beukes' Zoo City and Peter Merrington's Zebra Crossings spring to mind, and there are others.  I wonder what's going on with that: a subtle invasion of the popularity of 'fantasy' into the 'realist' mainstream?  An inventiveness born of frustrations with the conventional?  A subject for future blogs, perhaps.

At any rate, it is a pity - and an indictment - that our education systems and our general media seem in deliberate collusion to prevent our people from developing the love of reading that these and many, many other South African novels deserve.

This is a bit of a test blog, so hope you will visit again soon.
14 November 2015

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