The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga #37_2015

the reactive

Lindanathi, known as Nathi, is tormented by guilt at the death of his 9–months- younger brother, Luthando; technically half-brother as a result of their father ‘throwing them into different wombs one year after the other”. He died during the Xhosa initiation ceremony; Nathi had sent him ahead and promised to follow him. He broke this promise and stayed in Cape Town. He now regards himself as a murderer and this has a profound effect on his life.

Eight years later, he is hanging out with two friends, Ruan and Cecilia, in Cape Town. They spend most of the time drinking, drugging and philosophising while selling his ARVs to keep them going. It is clear that he is HIV-Positive, still a death sentence in the early 2000s. It is more difficult to figure out how he became a reactive and why; this is revealed as the narrative progresses. A reactive is a positive result after an HIV test but in this novel it has greater significance.

The description of the trifling details of their existence enhances the sense that they are drifting, cynical, disengaged with life. All three are misfits, outsiders and their bond is cemented through this. Cecilia, or Cissie, works at a daycare centre while Ruan works for his uncle in a clerical position.  It is difficult to be drawn to these characters; they are so wrapped up in themselves and their drugging. Yet this should not deter the reader as the writer describes their lives and their personas with consummate skill. The protagonist’s voice is consistently that of one who is jaded and cynical, who cannot be bothered to be impressed by the obvious.

Nathi had been a student at “the university in Rondebosch, just up the road from the main strip”; this casual reference subverts the idea that UCT is one of the most prestigious universities in South Africa. He dropped out after Luthando’s death and went to the technikon where he received “his science diploma and his sickness”. One morning, Nathi receives a text message from Bhut’ Vuyo, a man who had been married to Sis’ Funeka, Luthando’s mother. He had not heard from him for eight years. Bhut’ Vuyo is reminding him of his promise. This pricks his conscience and he knows he must respond. He tries to push it away and continues with his dissolute life. Thoughts of events that occurred in his childhood in eMthatha intrude and he remembers how he called Luthando “poor for the first time in their lives”. Luthando had pinched his nose and said “everything else about him was white” so he might as well have a pinched nose. It is only now that Nathi comprehends the significance of these things.

While he is wrestling with this, Ruan receives an email from a man who offers to buy all their stock; they accept the money with some trepidation, as they are not sure if it is a trap. The man summonses them to meet him at Champs, a pool bar in Mowbray. (Some of the appeal of this novel is that everywhere they go is familiar, if you know Cape Town). They arrive at the bar and a bouncer confronts them; it is nerve-wracking and suspenseful as they are out of their depth. What will happen?

Nathi observes everything as he moves around Cape Town, with or without Cissie and Ruan. It is these observations that bring the ordinary to life, whether it is the encounters with people on the street or in the taxi or musings on the long ago use of Greenmarket square as a slave market or his own emotions; the simple descriptions create a vivid picture. The style of writing is what elevates the novel from just another story about disenchanted twenty-somethings into living, breathing people.

Describing the weather, he notices that “the sun feels noncommittal in its bond to our planet today, spilling out light as grey as bath water;

While in a taxi, he notices “…a Golden Arrow bus grunts towards Atlantis;…”

and listens to, “…a girl with red-tinted hair, wearing a green gym tunic, takes the seat in front of me. I hear the music thumping into her skull from her headphones, a kwaito artist, famous for being a minor and beating a drug case”.

The digressions into dreams, the obscure thought processes of the three friends, the strange man they meet and Nathi’s obsession with the death of his brother all jostle up against the other to force a confrontation with the past that must happen for the future to be lived. A novel that offers no easy answers and provides much on which to muse; a read that some may regard as difficult but it is worth the effort.



The Raft by Fred Strydom #36_2015


This is a cracking good read. It has all the elements that keep the reader engaged; mystery, suspense, an epic journey in which the search for truth and justice has many obstacles. A Pilgrim’s Progress meets The Odyssey set in a future world. Do not shy away if you are one of those readers who avoid the speculative fiction genre; this is a treat.

Although it is set in South Africa, there is not much to identify the environment or the people as South African; apart from the odd bit of Afrikaans thrown in or allusions to South African towns. Everything changed on what is now referred to as Day Zero. Everyone’s memories are wiped clean at the same moment and confusion reigns. Kayle had been in his solar powered AV (auto-vehicle) when everything came to a grinding halt.

Many years later, Kayle Jenner is living in a tent on a beach near Betty’s Bay. Gideon is his closest friend, but it is difficult to make true friends when no-one remembers anything about who they were. They are virtually imprisoned and their every move is closely examined lest they deviate from the new thinking. A sect, the New Past, has arisen from the ashes of a world in which nothing operates as it once did. These people have documented their own philosophy in a book, The Age of Self Primary and everyone must adopt their doctrine. They call this time, The Renascence; the age of truth after the age of lies; families are “separated in the hopes of deterring tribal culture” and knowledge is seen as the root of evil.

Different characters tell Kyle their story, secretively, lest they be discovered. It becomes clear that some have memories and stories to tell that they know are not their own, yet they remember them as vividly as if they were. Through these false memories, different characters are introduced that crop up throughout the narrative in different places. Mineta remembers a strange man in the Tsitiskamma Forest; Jai-Li remembers the business empire, Huang Enterprises, her father once ran and the spaceship Chang’e 11 that disappeared for forty years.

Kyle has flashbacks to life before Day Zero once a few memories begin filtering back. He knows he had a wife, a son and a daughter but also knows that it is his son, Andy that he must find. He dreams about Andy, a recurring dream in which he climbs a tree up into the clouds. He is also often tormented in his dreams by a man called Jack Turning. He has no idea who this is. The back story of what happened to his family before Day Zero alternates with the present time.

Kayle and Gideon try and help Jai-Li escape. Their crime is discovered and they are sentenced to ‘separation by raft’. This punishment entails being tied naked to a raft at their wrists and ankles, being pumped full of hallucinogens and left there for three days with no food or water at the mercy of the elements. The raft is attached to the pier by a length of rope. He tries meditating but ‘wandering thoughts intruded upon the stillness of his mind like loud-mouthed heathens in a mountaintop temple”. Similes such as this abound and add richness to the writing.

While on the raft he tries to reconstruct the events leading up to his confinement. This is done using the second person, which shifts the narrative perspective once again. These shifts from one characters perspective to another is an effective way of combining the different strands. Jai-Li’s story is particularly fascinating and will provide one of the keys to the epic journey Kayle and Gideon embark on. This journey entails weird and wonderful obstacles and temptations to avoid lest they kill. Each place they arrive at offers another key to the mystery.

The sheer imagination and ingenuity of this novel kept me enthralled throughout. It is very well constructed; despite the many strands the narrative is clear and the answer to the mystery is unexpected. It is more than an adventure, a journey through strange and wonderful dangers; it is also about self, the struggles all beings endure and the difficulties we face in understanding our mission and purpose in life.

The Cutting Room by Mary Watson #35_2015

The Cutting Room

Lucinda is not doing well. Her husband, Amir, has disappeared again, without a word. He has been gone for seven weeks, having only been back from his previous disappearance for six months. Their Cape Town home resonates with the “exaggerated empty of recent absence, the nagging hurt of an amputated limb”. While she is dragging herself through her days, she receives a phone call from Thomas the Grey, an old friend who makes movies. He has come across a house on the outskirts of Heuwelhoek and wants to “make a film about the belief that a house is haunted, if not by an actual ghost, then by superstition and a history of unfortunate events”. He asks Lucinda to accompany him for a weekend to ‘find ghosts’.

In trying to make sense of Amir’s disappearance, Lucinda reflects on their relationship, how they met and the way they interacted. He had a girlfriend, Gabby, when they met and now she cannot help but think that their relationship was founded on the tears of others. Gabby continues to hang around but there is a disturbing incident at Princessvlei that changes things. Lucinda thinks about her childhood disrupted by the affair her mother, Rose, had with Uncle Basil. Uncle Basil was married to Dolores and see-sawed between the two homes on the Cape Flats.

Which is the cutting room? The place where Lucinda, as film editor, manipulates content into shape or the bedroom in her home where she is attacked by a masked man with a knife? This attack affects her deeply even though she is not badly hurt. Or is it the room in the Heuwelhoek house where Jeremy is murdered in 1933? All these aspects are explored in the novel and the different strands add layers of richness.

The Heuwelhoek house story is complex; different incidents over the years seem to replay as if each group of inhabitants inherit the trauma of the past and unconsciously twist it to fit their own lives. An old man in the nearby village would rather these stories are not unearthed while BEE developers are considering developing the land. Parallel to this there are some strange and sinister incidents, such as Wayne who becomes obsessed with her and Isobel, her niece, who behaves badly at a birthday party. Every chapter ends with an excerpt from a newspaper, reporting on different crimes or aberrant behaviour. This punctuates and re-inforces the underlying sense of menace.

In between visits to Heuwelhoek, Lucinda tries to overcome the fear she has felt since the attack. Friends invite her over but she hates being a pity guest; still they persuade her and she begins to find out more about Amir’s recent strange interests. She thinks about their visit to the bush and slowly the pieces start falling into place.

As much as anything else, Lucinda tries to make sense of herself but she struggles to see herself clearly or to admit to the wrongs she may have committed. The narrative sees her slowly circling around the bad things that happen until she learns about herself. We see Lucy through the eyes of many other characters who variously see her as someone who takes “wanting things to go her own way to an extreme”, or as clingy and dependent, or as the one to blame for Amir’s disappearance. His mother, in particular, turns against her and she feels like a pariah in the home where she had previously been welcome.

The beauty of this novel is the sense it evokes of how apparently slight imbalances put one’s world out of kilter; incidents take on a significance that seems unjustified by the bald facts. There is “a disturbance, a ripple on still water, something torn, now a jagged edge or nick that hadn’t been there before.” The language creates a sense of menace that lingers throughout, subtle yet unavoidable.

Black Widow Society by Angela Makholwa #34_2015

black widow society

This is a secret society with a difference. Unlike the usual male only societies, such as the Broederbond and Freemasons, this is a female only secret society. It was formed by three women at a time when they felt overwhelmingly helpless and at their wits end. Each of them was abused, dominated and diminished by their husbands and could see no other way out but to kill them or have them killed.

Talullah Ntuli, Edna Whithead and Nkosazana Khumalo are so empowered by their victory and freedom that they form the Black Widow Society. They are black widows who identify with the black widow spider that feeds on its mate. They look out for women who show the tell-tale signs of abuse and help them get rid of their husbands but still inherit their wealth. The organization has strict rules; members are forbidden to associate outside of the annual meeting; the only time they meet. The society has become profitable enough to create a fund that assists young women in need. Nkosazana looks after the financial side and is reluctant to help women without potential wealth but Tallullah insists that it is not only about the money. Cracks are beginning to show as 15 years of plotting to kill men have taken their toll and all three women are very different characters; no longer the broken beings they once were.

The lives and woes of various different characters intersect and these different threads create a compelling narrative. Janine Myburg (previously Magda Viljoen) works as a paralegal for Alex, a sleazy lawyer. This is a step up from her previous job as a stripper. She is desperate to find an old wealthy man and knows Alex can be the one to help her. It turns out she is an old childhood friend of Marie, the Afrikaans girlfriend of Mzwakhe Khuzwayo, the hitman for BWS. He is at the beck and call of the triumvirate but has notions of getting out. He has become shocked at their ruthlessness but they will never allow him to leave them.

Then there is Thami Mthembu who suspects husband Lloyd of cheating on her. He reassures her that all is fine on their fourth wedding anniversary but two weeks later, he arranges for divorce papers to be served on her while he is out of the country on business. She realizes too late that he had been after her wealth but now that he has used her connections to forge a name for himself, he discards her. She feels embittered and angry. Will she become a new member of the Black Widow Society?

An interesting aspect of the novel is the social commentary that emerges through the relationships between the characters. Mzwakhe’s relationship with his white girlfriend means his mother rejects him and refuses to see him again. They have a warm, intimate relationship but when her twin sister appears, things begin to go awry. Janine, who is a schemer and happy to manipulate anyone for money, develops another side to her character. Thami is more interested in the latest fashion and is a superficial, frivolous character. The variety of personalities add colour and variety.

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one. Is it justified to kill in certain situations or could they have found another way to help women extricate themselves from abusive situations? Over time the lines become less clear and corruption of the original ideals is inevitable. It reminds me of a movie called The Last Supper in which a group of friends decide that if a person is immoral then they are justified in killing them. When they hear of such a person they invite them to dinner and murder them. In time, the killing becomes more of a drug to them and their original morality is corrupted.

In true crime fiction style, there are many twists and turns; misunderstandings that lead to tragedy; blackmail and skullduggery. The writer is not afraid to allow matters to end badly, adding a touch of realism to this pacy, inventive novel.