Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu #1_2015

Penumbra 1I began reading this book without an inkling of what to expect. I had not read other’s opinions of it and the blurb on the back cover was not at all illuminating as it merely held an extract. Part One held me entranced as it depicts a young man in the throes of a disturbing mental episode that makes him feel panicky, claustrophobic and paranoid as he lurches through the day, assigning symbolic meaning to every person or thing that crosses his path so that the whole world seems to conspire against him. Even the meaning of the names of those he encounters take on significance

The writing is interesting; I particularly like the way the writer describes the physical sensations in the body; his “brain shakes…wind blows in ..[his] bowels” and “flies cluster in…[his] chest” as his panic grows. I find these metaphors evocative and visceral. I still did not know where the book was going but was enjoying the ride.

After this promising beginning. I was disappointed in Part Two. It describes the period before this episode when he is working as a graduate intern for a company where he is not given much to do and is probably only there to make up the numbers. He tries to find another job but the interviewees detect his underlying apathy. He buys a cigarette on the street. “I inhale the smoke and blow out the arrogance of the wealthy.” I enjoy these flashes of insight and good writing but this is not enough to redeem the novel.

All that seems to happen is the relating of one long litany of jols as the protagonist careens from one to another with his friends; drinking too much, becoming involved with a petty criminal, who introduces them to cocaine and champagne, topped by a sprinkling of sexual exploits with prostitutes. For a moment, it was reminiscent of Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe and I wondered if the world of crime was going to suck Mangaliso and his friends into its cycle of destruction. However, this aspect was not developed. None of the characters were developed either; they just seemed like a bunch of rootless youngsters that had fallen into a pit of addiction to booze, drugs and sex. Mangaliso appears to realise  this and, in trying to distance himself from them, turns to religion. This aspect of the novel is interesting because it is more symptomatic of his paranoia than of a genuine calling. Every encounter has spiritual undertones; even a man he meets in a nightclub. “His dark eyes peer through me. It’s as if he’s stealing bits of my soul.”

Part Three describes events directly after his breakdown and is more of the same with his paranoia and distrust of his friends increasing. it ends in the middle of nowhere. I still have not figured out what the over-riding thrust of this book is meant to be. I do not mind the lack of plot so much as the lack of focus. The depiction of Mangaliso’s mental turmoil is excellent but there is little context or understanding of its provenance. The same applies to all the characters in the book where elements are introduced that seem to go nowhere. Should they not then have been left out? I was surprised to learn that this novel had been shortlisted for the Sunday times Fiction prize; I have read quite a few excellent novels that have not even made the longlist (still, who on earth knows how these prizes work). Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, this novel is worth reading for its glimpses of talent and exposure to its shadow world.

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8 thoughts on “Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu #1_2015

  1. It sounds like a first draft – poor plotting, minimal characterisation. Shortlisted, you say? On the basis of your review, I’d have been surprised if this novel had been longlisted.

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  2. I found the book highly perplexing. The images were indeed visceral but I was lost throughout , like Penny was. I see that the writer was trying to show a certain world where NAFI-ism is the play of the day; like the title I felt, however, that I was at the edge of a dark circle of thought that never quite revealed itself into the light. The creation of anxiety and claustrophobia through the symbolism was excellent, but it just didn’t quite get there as a whole.

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  3. I considered that. Pity the execution was a bit off key. I wished that Mangaliso’s character would develop more, or that the incidents held more of a climax.

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