The Last Road Trip by Gareth Crocker #15_2015

Gareth Crocker - The Last Road Trip LRThis is an upbeat, feel-good novel. To those people who do not like SA Fiction because they find it too heavy going, The Last Road Trip is for you. It is filled with delightful characters, each one of whom has an unresolved issue in their past. Jack, Samuel, Elizabeth and Rosie are a little as I might imagine the Famous Five to be like in their golden years; going on adventures, all pulling together to solve problems and supporting each other along the way. It is also very funny with some great one-liners.

The four of them live on a retirement estate and socialise together frequently. After a funeral of one of the residents, Paul, they conclude that they do not want to see out the rest of their days living in this hidebound fashion. The various rules and regulations of the estate are stifling and restrictive so they decide to go on a road trip together. A letter written by Paul before he died triggered this decision. In essence, the message of the letter is also the message of the book.

“If you’re living with regrets – with things that you’ve put away in a box but that maybe keep you awake at night – I want to tell you that you still have time to put things right.”

They pile into Jack’s old Chrysler Voyager, kidnap Albert who was not allowed to leave, abduct his dog and head off to the first stop; Kruger Park. Each place they visit has significance for one of them. The aspect of the novel that I enjoyed the most were the various destinations that they visited. It is wonderful to recognise and re-visit places one knows and loves through a book. It is one of the reasons that many of us love reading SA fiction – the sense of place and knowingness.

I love nature and bird watching so enjoyed some of the entrancing descriptions that bring the natural world alive, like this description of starlings.

“All around starlings twitched and darted in their sapphire armour, glistening and glinting as the light caught their wings.”

Rosie is one of my favourite characters; a short, fat woman with loads of funny, sarcastic comments at the ready. Elizabeth eats like the proverbial bird and Rosie protests at how little she eats saying, “I’ve flossed more food out of my teeth than Elizabeth has on her plate. Her special place to visit is Hopetown and no one knows why. Her usual flippant self is nowhere to be seen when she finally reveals her childhood wounds and they all join in a ritual of her design that is very touching.

Another one of the places they visit is Victoria-West where there is an old art deco cinema. This fascinated me; what a bizarre thing to find in a small Karoo town. I wondered if the author invented this or if it really existed so I turned to Google. And, yes, it does. Jack and Elizabeth enjoy a private showing of Pretty Woman before the group head off to Sutherland, where Elizabeth will confront her demons. There is a wonderful scene in which they stay up all night to view a particular phenomenon of the night sky, where the stars look like “bright silver nail heads pinned to a black dome.”

Jack and Sam head off to Cape Town where the great mystery of Jack’s New Year’s Eve assignation finally becomes known and it is quite unexpected. Sam too is able to confront his past mistakes.After this trip, life changes for each character showing that it is never too late to find solutions to things that sometimes seem beyond repair.

The Last Road Trip is worth reading for the different experiences that the characters encounter and the trip around some interesting yet out of the way places. Jack as a character is a little too good to be true and some of the outcomes are a little sentimental and predictable.These small criticisms can be overlooked as it is a refreshing change, a lovely uplifting read; great escapism from reality which we all need sometimes.


Dark Whispers by Joanne Macgregor #14_2015

Dark whispers

Dark Whispers is a psychological thriller which is so gripping I had knots in my stomach while reading it. It combines two aspects that I really enjoy reading about, counselling sessions between psychologist and patient, and investigation into crimes in the attempt to stop a killer.

It is refreshing too that the protagonist, Megan Wright, is not a conflicted, dysfunctional alcoholic plagued by demons etc. She is an ordinary young woman, practising as a psychologist with an annoying mother and an anorexic sister. She has a very witty, self-deprecatory turn of phrase that adds humour, a counterpoint to the horrible events that take place. The writer introduces Megan via her New Year’s resolutions and these set the tone for this very endearing, plucky character. For example,

  1. Embrace my extra 4kg   (“How blessed am I to live and love in this temple”)
  1. Be (even more) patient with mommy dearest    (“I am as a hollow reed. Troubles pass through me as the wind…”)

I find this hilarious and, even better; her dog’s name is Oedipus. Her boyfriend, Mike, is a bit of a player but love blinds her to his faults. Although the novel is set in Johannesburg, the location, where much of the action takes place, is the Acacia Clinic.

What I particularly loved about the book was the contrast between Megan’s ordinary domestic life and the chillingly scary investigation she embarks upon, once she discovers what has happened to one of her patients. Alta had a gynaecological procedure that went awry and she has no recourse because the gynaecologist claims it was necessary. Megan hypnotises Alta, with her permission, in an attempt to discover more and she is convinced that what she finds out about the procedure during hypnosis is true. She uses various avenues to establish the facts and is not afraid to bend the rules, because she cannot make a direct accusation without more information. I find myself clenching my fists and exhorting Megan to be careful, as I do not want her to be in danger.

The dialogue is excellent and adopts different tones, depending on whether Megan is chatting to her receptionist, Patience; her gay friend, Wade; or involved in a counselling session. Good dialogue that flows and is authentic can make a novel seem like real life.

The writer is a psychologist and this makes the counselling sessions she has with her clients authentic. It adds an interesting dimension to the novel. While she is trying to discover the truth about the gynaecologist, he is doing the same to her and he visits her as a patient using a false name. She has two new patients signing up on the same day so neither Megan nor the reader know which one is the perpetrator. It is really tense and gripping.

The writer uses the effective device of including chapters, or inserts, in italics that are windows in to the mind of the perpetrator. In these, the reader learns of his modus operandi as well as the childhood experiences that set off his own trauma. His pathological need for perfection is rooted in a childhood of rejection and cruelty. It is said that damaged people damage others; it is certainly the case in this situation.

There are some gruesome, violent scenes, although they do not pre-dominate, so Dark Whispers is not for the faint-hearted. In one scene, I found myself reading very fast so as not to visualise what I was reading; similar to closing one’s eyes in a movie.

Joanne Macgregor is a fresh new voice on the thriller / suspense / crime fiction scene and I certainly hope there is more to come from her. Convincingly scary and suspenseful with a good dash of humanity thrown in.

Small Things by Nthikeng Mohlele #13_2015

Small Things

How do I even begin to describe this jewel of a novel? Small Things is an almost poetic meditation that documents the musings and reflections of a man who was born in Sophiatown before it was dismantled and now finds himself in his sixties and unable to contend with the demise of principle.The setting is Johannesburg then and now.

It is perhaps more a novella than a novel with the intensity of 500 pages condensed and concentrated into 108 pages. The contemplations of this nameless man are profoundly simple yet achingly fashioned with beautiful language. As I closed it on the last page all I wanted to do was read it again.

It is almost serendipitous that I selected this as my next book to read after The Textures of Silence because it is also partly set in pre-democracy days. It is a very different novel but also speaks to the theme of the fall from grace of our current government, compared to the values of the struggle days. It is a window into the shadowy corners of the mind of a man whose very being has shifted into inertia; partly due to the dehumanisation he experienced after 18 years of incarceration during the apartheid years.

The preface sets the tone for the novel as the reader is introduced to the unusual thought processes of the protagonist who constantly questions his own suppositions; he does not think “much of life” but is “never sure if this conclusion is without some blemish, some residue, however faint, of an ounce of madness”. Then we are plunged into his love for Desiree, the postmaster’s daughter, who never fully requites his eternal love for her but is drawn to him. Time skips along and sometimes the timelines are a little confusing. He grows up in a catholic orphanage, writes outspoken newspaper articles and is then incarcerated for eighteen years in the early seventies where Major Joubert tortures him relentlessly. He describes Major Joubert as “a skinny man of average build, clean-shaven with a pleasant smile; more suited for packing watermelons and tomatoes in supermarkets than hunting down rebels”. This description simultaneously evokes a notion of his sense of superiority over his captor while underscoring the chillingly ordinary face of evil.

Upon his release, he is homeless, lives on the streets with pigeons as company, (I love the bird icons that separate sections – see pic) and is often drawn to the Nelson Mandela Bridge. Here a Dark Figure attacks him. The remarkable thing is that although left for dead, he refuses to assist the police. From his point of view, he has no interest in “chasing ghosts”. He does not conform to society’s expectations, time and time again. This Dark Figure roams through the novel and seems to be a symbol of unexplained violence as much as he is a real person who kills.

page of Small Things

He discovers Desiree again and she is as heartless as ever. He finds a job working as a guide in Soweto where he offers advice on memorable experiences but he cannot understand how overseas tourists “endure a fourteen-hour flight, come all the way to South Africa and request to view corpses”. Another theme in this book emerges when a former fellow prisoner who now heads the Ministry of Tourism offers him a “plush job”. He does not want it. He does not want to be important. He also does not want to be beholden. After so many years of incarceration, he does not want a different form of incarceration. He believes there is “a certain freedom, a peculiar reckless abandon that comes with not being important”. This theme brings Thando Mqolozana’s novel, Importance, to mind. Although it is a very different novel, it also addresses issues of principle.

Our man meets Mercedes who teaches him to play the trumpet. His relationship with Mercedes gives rise to many pronouncements on love and all its manifestations and meanings. The descriptions of lovemaking are wonderful; evocative without being explicit. Mercedes witnesses his tears in response to music and tells him that he is a “priceless gift to the universe” because his tears show the hidden talent of one who is “beyond musical scales, the one who plays hard to contain raging fires within”.

This man’s thoughts tug at my heart and create sorrow within me because of his life experience and his current disillusionment; the effect is far greater than if it had been manifest in the usual way; this man does everything the hard way; he believes he “can wrestle the universe into submission” in “lone pursuit of non-existent perfect worlds”. He sees himself as others see him and in so doing is harsh and cruel to himself; embittered yet not ready to give up his moral centre. He sees himself as a “dreamer, an average man overtaken by fate”. His most endearing quality is that he is true to himself no matter what.

This character has insinuated himself into my heart and into my mind. His decisions seem inexplicable but they make sense in the light of how he views himself and his life. Yet I do not even know his name. Nthikeng Mohlele has a special talent in his use of language and his ability to encapsulate enormous themes and distil them down to Small Things.

The Texture of Shadows by Mandla Langa #12

The Textures of Shadows

This intriguing work of historical fiction elucidates the extent to which today’s troubles within the ANC (known as the Movement in the novel) is rooted in the struggle era; particularly the seventies and eighties. It is a complex political thriller with a large cast of characters and different groups made up of strange bedfellows, each with their own agendas. The different physical and emotional experiences of exiles vs ‘inxiles’ add another dimension to the narrative.

I have very little knowledge of the details of the armed struggle that took place beyond our borders. I know even less of the shady dealings, human rights abuses as well as abuses of power that occurred. Although I had heard mention of these things, perhaps I turned a blind eye as, like many others, I did not want to interfere with my possibly romantic notions of the struggle. Therefore, this fictionalised account, rooted in the facts, is fascinating as well as heart-breaking. Some of the characters are perhaps loosely based on an amalgam of real people but I will not recognize them; maybe some readers will. According to Mandla Langa, one of the main characters, Nerissa Rodrigues, is inspired by Phyllis Naidoo and is a tribute to her.

The story begins with Nerissa penning a letter to the President to inform him of the ‘treatment of people incarcerated’ in the camps in Angola and also to tell him the story of the ‘young men and women who left home to fight the regime’ that have now returned. There is a group of guerillas who are tasked with a mission to return to South Africa with two trunks of ‘material assets’ that they must guard carefully. One of the trunks virtually becomes a character in the story as there are many different factions that are desperate to get their hands on it, all for different reasons. It is believed that the trunk might have evidence of the ‘big mamba eating the eggs’, in other words, the sell-out who had compromised the senior structures of the Movement.

The different groups in the novel consist of this group transporting the trunk, the members of the Movement in Durban who are tasked with escorting them and hiding them, the military leadership of the Movement (who are in an unholy alliance with Colonel Jan Stander of the Security Branch) as well as a group of askaris, some of whom are also muddying the waters. This is quite confusing for the reader as it is difficult to figure out who is who; the confusion is even greater because many of the men have aliases. Sometimes their real names are used and sometimes the aliases are used. As the different strands come together and the action climaxes, all is made clear. I enjoyed this complexity and trying to figure it all out; it is worth a little hard work. Furthermore, this very confusion experienced by the reader in some way represents the confusion in the land at the time.

This novel is also so much more than a political thriller as it examines the different types of people who were embroiled in the armed struggle. There are some who sacrifice others and collaborate with the enemy while portraying themselves as heroes; others are turned into askaris by falling prey to blackmail; others are idealistic and hold the expressed values of the Movement very dear and yet others are psychopaths and mercenaries who are drawn to the killing and violence that is tacitly sanctioned, although they care little for the cause itself.

The time span of the novel moves between December 1989 (when Walter Sisulu and others had already been released and rumours of Mandela’s imminent release were rife) back to the early 70s when many of the characters were first politicized. There are incidents in 1977 when the trunk first comes to light and the askaris are captured, then the action  moves to 1985 when Nerissa, who cultivates the persona of a ‘scatty Indian auntie’, is tasked with investigating the abuse of prisoners in the camp known as Section 37.

The psychological insights into what motivates different characters; the emotions and thought processes experienced by people in their different roles make this novel special. It is not simply a story of the events of those times, it is also about people’s lives; their loves, their passions, their weaknesses and their strengths. The characters are well- drawn with descriptions that bring them to life, for example, Laura, wife to Muzi Thabethe, leader of the ‘inxiles’ is

mystified by people who called her beautiful. She saw her eyes as too wide apart, eyebrows too bushy for a woman, nose flattish and lips too thick. To compound the  perceived imperfection was a protruding upper left incisor, which caused her to cover the corner of her mouth whenever she smiled. 

Descriptions such as these bring characters to life. Various characters have interesting discussions as they worry over the effect Mandela’s release will have on the country and whether or not it will plunge the Movement into confusion. Georgina, Nerissa’s partner, believes there is a ‘self-correcting gene in the DNA’ of the movement but Nerissa is not as hopeful. Throughout there is this element of dramatic irony because the reader knows the present situation but the characters do not.

Adding to the mystery, there are 7 passages, in italics, interspersed through the text referred to as Logs. This reminded me of the Interludes in Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue, although they serve a different purpose. There are two unnamed characters in these passages who are embroiled in a passionate love affair with an undercurrent of abuse and clear evil intentions. It is not clear who they are but all is revealed in the end.

The Textures of Shadows is a political thriller which tears the scab off romantic notions of the armed struggle without debasing those who believed in the ideals and values of the party. The use of language and literary devices embroil the reader in the world of the novel. This makes its a fascinating read, not to be missed.