October by Zoe Wicomb #22_2015


There are those that never leave the place of their childhood. Then there are those that cannot wait to escape from the place called home. The very idea of home is a fraught idea for many people. October explores the concept of home and belonging by asking what it is that makes one place home in favour of another. People who have mixed feelings about home often have very good reasons for their confused and contrary emotions. In the case of Mercia Murray, as with so many, this stems from childhood trauma.

Mercia is in her fifties and her partner of 22 years has recently left her. She grew up in a Coloured community in the small village of Kliprand in Namaqualand and moved to Scotland during apartheid after completing her degree, and lectures at a university in Glasgow.

While she is struggling with grief and trying to make sense of “the ready-made condition of having been left”, a passive state that renders her helpless, she simultaneously receives a book called Home, (which she devours in a night), and a “please-come-home “letter from her “bad egg” brother, Jake. He asks her to come and fetch his son, Nicky, as Mercia is all he has left. This is odd because Nicky has a mother and a father. She wonders if Jake is drinking again.

The parallels between her life with Jake and the story of siblings in the novel, Home, are striking, except Mercia and Jake’s story is set in a different continent, “a harsh land that makes its own demands on civility”. The references to this novel continue throughout. This reminds me of why I like reading; recognising thoughts and feelings that are similar to my own, written by an author who describes people in another place and time. I did not figure out if the book Home read by the protagonist was the Toni Morrison or the Marilynne Robinson; quotes from each book are included. This underscores the way books talk to each other. In addition, Mercia tries her hand at a memoir, a very different sort of writing from the academic writing to which she is more accustomed. She files it in a folder on her laptop labelled Home.

This examination of home and its necessary companion, childhood, leads to the theme of memories and its vagaries. In looking at her past, she knows there are aspects which she avoids thinking about; especially the troubled relationship between her brother, Jake, and their father, Nicholas. Jake has become a drunk and he hates his father with a bitter rage. Many of his self-sabotaging actions, as an adult, are deliberate acts of revenge against his father. He cannot forgive Nicholas for the regular beatings he inflicted upon Jake all his life. These beatings were indeed barbaric and the “aapstert” was used on both children, in case they had committed any sin. Every day! In the name of God! Yet Mercia also remembers some good times and she cannot understand why these memories are lost to Jake. She knows that guilt defined their childhood but also remembers some “golden days”.

Their father, Nicholas, or Meester, as he called himself when he moved to Kliprand, represents the tragedy of the Coloured people. Colonial masters bedding their slaves, exploiting the most vulnerable from their position of power, created them. Yet, ironically, instead of rejecting his abusive forebears, Meester is proud of his Scottish ancestry and sees himself as better than the ‘hotnos’ of Namaqualand. A society that is already stratified based on race is further stratified into “decent” Coloureds and the not so decent. Furthermore, he was influenced by the hell and damnation religion touted by the missionaries, which lacks elements of human kindness. All these factors create the monster that is Meester. He pulled himself up “by his bootstraps” and is determined his children will do the same.

Mercia goes home in her favourite month, October, a month she hates in Scotland. She finds the

“moderate heat comforting, and she does love the familiar view of grey-green scrub with flat-topped mountains looming blue in the distance. She loves that hot, red sand where ancient tortoises sit for days resting in the same scrap of shade as if the earth had not moved, or night had not fallen, tortoises whose purpose it would seem is to endure the passage of time.”

Coincidentally, I was visiting this area when I was reading the book and the descriptions are wonderfully accurate. The beauty of arid regions is so different from the accepted norms of what is beautiful.

When Mercia arrives home, she finds Jake is bed-ridden and is drinking himself to death. Mercia and Jake’s wife, Sylvie, are from completely different walks-of- life despite having grown up in the same little village. Mercia castigates herself for her snobbish attitude towards Sylvie but she simply cannot relate to her. Sylvie thinks Mercia is a “namby pamby woman”. Their many misunderstandings drive much of the tension in the novel. Each of their perspectives are presented from their own point of view, which challenges the reader’s perceptions. Sylvie is a very interesting character; she grew up in a poor household with three mothers. She did not know her father or which of the mothers, if any, is her biological mother. Mercia cannot get Jake to talk to her and explain what has happened so in the meantime she takes Nicky, the child for walks into the veld. Eventually Mercia confronts Jake and discovers the reason for Jake having taken to his bed. This changes everything.

October tells the story of a Coloured family; though the history of South Africa adds dimensions to this story that probably do not exist elsewhere, it is also a universal story of people marginalised by poverty who have a drive to improve themselves and wish to ensure that their children can lead better lives than they did. Yet, what makes this book special is its exploration of ideas of home as well as the recording of personal history that is very aware of the “presumption of knowing”. Despite exploring many varied themes, because these themes are inextricably linked, October is coherent and insightful. The way it illustrates the faultiness of memory while engaging the reader in the lives of its characters is wonderful.


And her name was Good: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk


“Poor Agaat. What has my life been? What has her life been? How can I ever reward her for coming this far with me here on Grootmoedersdrift? How does one compensate somebody for that fact that she allowed herself to be taken away and taken in and then cast out again? And to be made and unmade and remade. Not that she had a choice. I even gave her another name.”

This is a variation on the refrain that haunts Milla de Wet’s thoughts as she lies, paralyzed in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, completely dependent on her black servant turned caregiver Agaat to attend to her every need. As Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel begins, the two women are reduced to communicating through eye movements. Eventually even that will be impossible. But Milla’s mind is sharp and brittle in her confined waking hours and Agaat, stalwart and…

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A Suggested Reading List for Penny (and you)

Kinna Reads

Penny De Vries is a “Book worm. Book lover. Raised on Enid Blyton but have progressed to sterner stuff. Only read real books. e-Reading does not work for me as I immerse myself in the book, I live in its pages and I need that to be physical even though it is virtual in a way.”

Penny’s Reading Challenge in 2015 is to ” read fiction by SA (South African) writers only.

I got the following email from Penny:

“We are starting a reading group in Durban, South Africa. We want to concentrate on reading works by African writers. We are familiar with the South African writers but not as much with writers from other African countries. We do know quite a few of the well-known writers from the 20th century but not so many of the more contemporary writers.  We know Adichie and Helon Habila but not too…

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Wasted by Mark Winkler #21_2015


On the very first page, the reader is plunged into the strangeness that is Nathan Lucius, the main protagonist of this brilliantly conceived novel. Nine bullet points list the characteristics that Nathan regards as representing who he is. They are both obscure and illuminating. Each chapter’s title is a phrase from the opening sentence of that chapter; some of these titles can be misleading without context; this almost mirrors the fragmented mind of Nathan.

The first person perspective means that only Nathan’s thoughts, opinions and narration of the facts is presented. Furthermore, the novel is written using short sentences and is almost entirely in the present tense. This staccato style conveys immediacy as if the action is unfolding as you read. The tone is matter-of-fact so even when something startling happens, there is a sense that Nathan is detached emotionally.Who he is now, at the age of 31, has no context. He narrates his life almost as if he were born at this age.

I love the internal commentary on various things from the lack of news to his opinion on his next door neighbor, Adele du Toit, and his dislike for Dino, journo and boyfriend to his boss, Sonia. It is through this internal commentary that it becomes clear that Nathan is cynical, demotivated, almost nihilistic and decidedly odd. Sonia has to tell him to shower because of the smell, “of booze and feet and bum”; this after three days of not showering. While she lectures him he is distracted by her long, angry nipples (imagine nipples being angry) which are giving him a hard-on. Nathan often gets hard-ons in the most unlikely circumstances. He thinks to himself that her nipples are like “cocktail viennas” and wonders “if they’ll tear holes in Sonia’s T-shirt.“

Another thing Nathan has is a “library of faces” that he adopts at appropriate moments. “Or maybe it’s a wardrobe. Or a closet. Whatever you call that place where you keep your faces.”  On the one hand, as a reader, you nod knowingly because we all have masks but on the other hand, you realise that it is not usually such a conscious, deliberate act as seems to be the case with Nathan. There are hints that he is in a precarious position in the workplace where his job is selling ad space for a newspaper.

Nathan is also friendly with an elderly woman who owns a pseudo-antique shop. She has cancer and will be dead soon.  He buys old family photograph albums from her and arranges them into a family tree on the wall in his flat. This way he says he can have a new family whenever he wishes. He says nothing of his actual family. He is a loner and never allows anyone into his flat.

Sometimes the action leaps from the previous evening when he leaves Eric’s, the drinking hole where he often drinks with colleagues, to his awakening the next day. These gaps in the narrative might equate to gaps in his consciousness or is he simply leaving things out? This makes him a distinctly unreliable narrator as we have no other perspective that divulges information. It adds to the mystery that is Nathan, a man who seems to have no past and is not that interested in his future. He does not have a car because “cars are for people who want to go somewhere”.

One day Madge asks him to euthanize her, to murder her because her life is a living death, she is in pain and constant struggle. This throws him into turmoil because he really likes her. At the same time he is having wild, drunken sex with the older woman next door “doing things that can’t be legal”. He does not like it when Mrs du Toit (he still thinks of her this way despite having sex with her) wants to find out more about him.  He explains,

“Imagine standing in a big bucket. Every time you tell somebody something about yourself you’re pouring a spadeful of concrete into the bucket. Soon enough it sets. You can’t move.”

He wants to forget as much as possible. Yet he finds it hard to forget, much as he tries.Just as he thinks he is mastering forgetting, memories creep in and catch him off-guard. This is one of the few allusions to his past. He is in a quandary about Madge, his drunken pill-popping episodes with Mrs du Toit make him late for work so Sonia is furious with him and there are blanks in his memory.  Everything escalates and comes to an end until there is a blank.

I cannot explain one more thing. You have to read it and find out for yourself. The discovery of the outcome is like watching a scene in a movie where the elements are familiar but together they do not make  sense; time is thrown out of kilter but one by one as the elements come into sharp relief, understanding dawns.

Wasted is brilliantly conceived and written. Nathan Lucius with his idiosyncrasies is a masterful work of the imagination; you may not like him, he may disturb you but you will never forget him. When you discover what has made him who he is, you will be jarred and jolted. You will then want to read the book again.