Weeping Waters by Karin Brynard #11_2015

Weeping Waters

Weeping Waters (Huilwater) is a crime fiction novel translated from the Afrikaans and set in a small town on the platteland in the Northern Cape (near Postmasburg and Upington). It is a very dry, hot area where water is scarce. Many of the farmers have turned from sheep and cattle farming and begun game farms to attract tourists.

The inhabitants of the town and the surrounding farms form a patchwork of personality types, ethnic origins and political beliefs; fairly representative of South Africa as a whole, where competing belief systems have long been at war. The tensions between the different groups are portrayed well through dialogue and action.

The white farmers believe that farm murders across the country are part of a coordinated, government-inspired assault on them and are designed to exterminate them as a group. Although I am extremely uncomfortable with this view (as propagated by the likes of Steve Hofmeyer), this is how a section of our population thinks. So it is perhaps better to explore it in a novel rather than pretend it does not exist.

Inspector Beeslaar (Bees) is a semi-reluctant counter to the right wing farmers as he tries to explain that farm attacks are not a special crime category. He hails from the Murder and Robbery Squad in Johannesburg where he blotted his copybook after having been deemed to commit a racist assault on a colleague (he, of course, has an excuse for his violence). He has been given a last chance by being sent to this backwater and has to ensure he does not blot his copybook again. His boss, Superintendent Mogale, who is based in Upington, loses no opportunity to remind Bees of his precarious position coupled with rubbing it in that the whites are no longer in charge. His two sergeants are so-called Coloured policeman from the area, “both of them rookies with zero experience.”

Bees is bitter about his position, plagued with personal issues and is extremely impatient and abusive to them, even laughing at Pyl’s battle with the English language when interviewed by the media. Despite this, he has a humane empathetic side such as in his treatment of the street child, Bulelani. The portrayal of Bees is far more rounded than the portrayal of the superintendent and the two sergeants, who are typical stereotypes. This makes them less credible. Once again, it reflects how so many people perceive those who they do not really know. There is progression in their relationships during the novel as they develop an understanding of each other and during this progress the characters show different dimensions. It goes a little way in improving the stereotypical representations, although this does seem engineered.

Bees is tasked with preventing right-wing insurrection and solving recent stock theft when Freddie Swarts and her adopted child, Klara, are brutally murdered at the farm, Huilwater. Freddie is an artist and a free spirit with liberal ideas regarding land restoration that do not go down very well in the district. She has adopted a Griqua child, Klara and had been involved in helping those in need. Her manager is Adam de Kok, known as a ‘Bushman’ but of Griqua descent; he naturally becomes the prime suspect without very good reason. He is a very interesting character who had been close to Freddie. The white farmers are in an uproar at yet another farm murder but Sara, Klara’s estranged sister who lives in Cape Town, believes the staging of the body points to something other than a typical farm murder. Sara’s return to the area is fraught with fear, sadness and guilt as she not only tries to investigate the murder but is also tormented by regrets of her own rejection of Freddie, tantamount to having killed her off, herself.

Nelmari Viljoen is Freddie’s agent from Johannesburg who was instrumental in publicising her work. She is distraught at the death of her closest friend but is somehow never available to help Sara. Boet Pretorius, a farmer new to the area, who initially discovered the mutilated bodies is another character that seems to have plenty to hide. Throw a few more murders into the mix, sinister dead animals being left at the farm, the right wing farmers trying to resurrect the Commandos and Bees struggling to navigate his way through this explosive mix, and you have all the ingredients of suspense and mystery required for crime fiction.

The pace is good, the dialogue convincing, the sense of place well described and the different strands, such as Freddie’s disturbing art pieces and elements of Griqua history that were woven into the text, add some interesting dimensions to this novel. Some of the actions of the characters do not always make sense such as a fearful character visiting an isolated farm alone when there is a murderer at large. This stretched my credibility.

Despite my reservations about this and the representations of different races, to some degree these initial perceptions are subverted during the course of the novel and everything is not quite what it seems. I really enjoyed the setting and the insights into small town life. Weeping Waters is an entertaining read despite its flaws.


Love Tastes Like Strawberries by Rosamund Haden #10_2015

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This book has a beautiful cover. The letters of the title are punched out so that the red strawberry pattern on the page underneath show through. The title is the name of a song by Miriam Makeba (there is also a version by Hugh Masakela). In the novel, the song is a trigger for Stella, the main protagonist. It plunges her back into her teens on holiday with her mother in Greece, when she hears it by chance, some fifteen years or so later. The whole time I was reading this book, it was my ear worm.

The other most significant protagonist is Francoise. She is a Rwandan woman who lives with her sister, Dudu, in Observatory, Cape Town (there is an Obs in Jhb too). Francoise is a sympathetic, interesting and credible character. Her story is one of a harrowing escape from Rwanda with Dudu, who is a handful to say the least; volatile and wilful but passionately loyal to Francoise. At times she appears to sabotage Francoise but this is linked to their joint traumatic experiences. As Francoise says, they are a package deal.

The different players in this drama all meet at artist, Ivor Woodall’s life drawing class at his studio in Observatory. Luke and Jude are students, Stella and Timothy are friends and Francoise is the model. Luke also models, Ivor has a thing for Luke and Jude, Luke’s girlfriend or fuck-buddy, inserts herself into the action. Timothy is a rescuer and is in love with Francoise. Stella’s mother died six months ago and it just so happens that the drama in Greece when she was on holiday with her mother, was centred around Ivor.

The perspective shifts mainly between Francoise and Stella with forays into the lives of the bit part characters. Francoise reflects on her past in Rwanda and Stella also looks back to her past as she tries to make sense, not  only of her mother’s death, but also of her life. The time spent in Greece was ruined for her because she had a crush on Ivan but her mother horned in and took him over. Furthermore, Ivan had persuaded her to keep his shocking secret that she stumbled upon in Greece and this had an enormous effect on her life. The only trouble was, when I discovered the nature of the secret, I was disappointed; my reaction was, oh, is that all? and that ruined your life?

The storyline and the characters were intriguing and showed promise; I was interested in discovering how all the strands would come together. Unfortunately, the development of these strands was unsatisfactory. The switches in time and perspective were a little jerky. The characters were either too bitchy (Ivan), too wacky (Luke and Jade) or too ineffectual (with the exception of Francoise, the most authentic character). Stella, in particular, was annoying in her wallowing over the past and her mother. Then to top it all, the ending of the novel was bizarre and barely explicable.

There may be some that would enjoy this book, which was well written, but for me it was like watching your favourite rugby or football team playing so brilliantly in the first half that you know they will win and then it all falls apart in the second half; disappointing when it promised so much.

The Violent Gestures of Life by Tshifhiwa Given Mukwhevo #9_2015

The Violent Gestures of Life

This is such a haunting title; I wonder if it has another source or if the writer simply thought it described his book. The word gestures, particularly, implies so much. It makes me think of a person groping in the dark, speechless, frustrated and so much more.

Despite the warning in the title, I am shocked at what happens right in the beginning of The Violent Gestures of Life. It thrusts the reader right into life in Qalakabusha, a reform school (or stoutskool) and the appalling treatment meted out to the boys by their caretakers. It is as if they feel justified in their cruelty because the boys are young criminals but this is supposedly a place of rehabilitation not punishment.

The protagonist’s name is Gift, a possibly deliberate name assigned to him by the writer, Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho, who has spent time in a correctional institution and is drawing on his own experience. We have so many stories begging to be written in South Africa, especially of people who for centuries have not been able to display their individuality. The more we can read about other’s lives, the less ‘other’ they become. It is also important though that these stories are well written, as a reader relishes language, pace and authenticity; not only story. This novel satisfies all these criteria and engenders strong emotions in the reader as well as an appreciation for the language. I particularly like the shift between life in the reform school and Gift’s reflections on his past, his misdemeanours and his family life. The dialogue too is representative, in turn, of the slang that boys speak amongst themselves and the more formal language with which they address adults. The writer’s turn of phrase is wonderfully evocative such as when Gift is unhappy and a “strong wind of emotions gusts through his chest”; when he is wakeful and tries to sleep but “sleep refuses to be his partner”.

Gift is an intriguing character, highly intelligent, troubled by family issues and resentful of his situation. His parents split because of irreconcilable ideological differences regarding traditional religious practices and Christianity. Consequently, the adults neglect the children’s needs in favour of their own. A fairly common occurrence but add poverty to the mix; add parents having new partners and more children and add all of them being accommodated in two-room houses and everything goes awry. Of course, understanding the causes of Gift’s drift into criminality does not condone his actions but does put a face to delinquency. His struggle when incarcerated in Qalakabusha is to re-habilitate his mind and to be able to take responsibility for his actions.

Sober reflection is very difficult because the boys are treated unfairly and the punishments meted out are excessive. The scene when the caretakers allow police in and they beat the boys is appalling. Gift has a strong sense of fairness and though he knows that keeping silent in the face of unreasonable authority will keep him out of trouble, he also cannot restrain himself from speaking out at times. Fortunately, a teacher recognizes his potential and guides him. Mrs Hadebe calls him in and says, “In my culture, we don’t heap praises on graves,” which means they do not wait for people to die before they praise them. This and the discussions he has with his friends are what help to set him on the right path.

The narrative shifts from Qalakabusha in Mpumalanga to the rural village of Munzhedzi in Limpopo. The interactions between families and neighbours in his home are brought to life as vividly as those between the boys in the reform school. His longing for the simple life he led when he was feeding goats and helping his mother with her crops is poignant. The scattering of words in other South African languages add richness to the text. There is also a glossary, which is useful; even though many words are understood by their context, it is good to be able to check understanding.

The Violent Gestures of Life with its insight into the troubles of a young boy and how family life and circumstances combine to drastically affect his future is a wonderful though disturbing read. It brings to mind Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe and My Father My Monster by Macintosh Polela, both cautionary tales (though the latter is not fictionalised).  These stories have a redemptive nature, which give hope on the one hand but concern for those who are not redeemed on the other.

I read a review in which Fred Khumalo wrote that this novel falls in to the category of ‘kwaito fiction’ but despite it being a morality tale or a coming-of-age tale (not too fond of these labels but perhaps they serve a purpose) I found this book to be very different from Young Blood – it is not about gangsters, hijacking and the like; kwaito did not spring to mind.