I really enjoyed this book. It tells the story of Yusuf Carrim, a young South African man from a Muslim background, who is a journalist living in New York. He finds out that Sam, a Zimbabwean man who has worked for his family as a gardener since Yusuf was a child, is missing after having travelled to Libya. He feels drawn to return to South Africa to help find him. In the very first chapter, I was reminded of Fugard’s ‘Master Harold and the Boys’; maybe it was partly because of the name Sam as well as the almost fatherly role this man adopts with the 9 year old Yusuf. Although, Yusuf is nowhere near as dreadful as Hally was to his Sam, betrayal is a theme that runs through the story.
In trying to find Sam, Yusuf stumbles upon family secrets that will shake his sense of identity and lead him to dangerous places both physically and emotionally. It is a story of our times in a global sense touching on many of the upheavals of the 21st century such as the Arab Spring, displaced people and refugee centres. It is also a story that is deeply rooted in our apartheid past and the devastating effect it had and is still having on people’s lives. The propensity for instant gratification that the media satisfies, whether through talk shows or Twitter, is another thread that situates the novel firmly in the 21st century
One of the aspects I enjoyed about The Thunder That Roars is the way it gives a voice to those that remain marginalised twenty years of democracy later. The dominant narrative about so many things in South Africa still seems to be from a white perspective, whether this be Zimbabwean politics or affirmative action. The writer’s depiction of the racist attitude of the man sitting next to him on the flight to Bulawayo is perfectly executed, I hear people talking this way about Zimbabwe often. This is counter-pointed by Sam’s uncle, Skuzukuduma, taking Yusuf on a tour of Bulawayo and giving him a running commentary criticising all facets of society, especially the remaining white ‘settlers’ and the MDM politicians. We need these voices to be heard.
There are three strong male characters whom Yusuf encounters during his search in different contexts; Skuzukuduma, Professor Odinka and Idris, the Somalian refugee. Each one assists him, teaches him and offers him difficult truths to digest. They are all fascinating, quirky characters that add richness to the narrative. .
Yusuf as a character is very appealing; he lies, he womanises, he judges others (like his father) without recognising where his behaviour is similar yet he goes to the ends of the earth in his attempt to find Sam. He wants to do the right thing but he struggles to overcome his own moral weakness. Most of the women he chooses are trophy girlfriends except for two women who see through him and give him short shrift. It is refreshing to encounter a character that is so human instead of the fairly typical all-good or all-bad characters that so often litter novels.
Many of the reasons I enjoyed this book are also personal. It is partly set in Yeoville, Johannesburg where I grew up so I can imagine the very streets where the action takes place. The characters are so familiar too; I recognise them. Such as Pedro, the workshop manager, who is still called ‘baas’ and still calls Sam’s friend, Phineas, ‘kaffir’. As Skuzukuduma says, ‘The more things change the more they seem to stay the same.’ And the ending, while no fairytale, is apt.
Really a great read with a fast pace, authentic and thought-provoking too. More please, Mr Garda.