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KZN Literary Tourism reviews contemporary South African fiction and poetry.  Reviews are done by academics and members of our KZN literary community (contact us if you would like to review for us).  View reviews as articles or list.

Green remembered hills PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 19 February 2017 17:39

By Stephen Coan

With Hazara – Elegy for an African Farm John Conyngham (a featured author on the KZN Literary Tourism website) has broken the long silence following the publication in 1998 of his novel The Lostness of Alice; the final book in a thematically connected trilogy, its predecessors being The Arrowing of the Cane and The Desecration of the Graves.

The epigraph to The Lostness of Alice, drawn from Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, ‘If I know a song of Africa does Africa know a song of me?’, could also apply to Hazara, an exploration of white identity and belonging in Africa, more specifically that of the English-speaking South African. Part memoir, part history, part personal meditation, Hazara is the story of a sugar farm north of Durban and the family who lived on it for five decades during the last century.

The Arrowing of the Cane was set on the same farm, or if not the same, certainly its palimpsest, where owner James Colville, haunted by a colonial past and a claustrophobic present, knocks back the J&B as cane fields burn in the night and he feels compelled to write a first-person account articulating his predicament.

The Arrowing of the Cane, which won several awards, and in its British edition drew praise from, among others, Colm Tóibín, was dedicated to ‘Mia Woollam, in memory’. When Mia (née Keith-Fraser) married James Woollam in 1924 her father bought her a farm as a dowry. Its undulating hills planted with vivid green fields of cane were offset by the blue of the Indian Ocean in the distance. James named the farm Hazara as a reminder of his service in the 106th Hazara Pioneers during World War One; the Hazaras being one of the peoples of Afghanistan drawn under the umbrella of the British Raj.

The shadow of the imperial project is ever present in Hazara, as Conyngham explains in an author’s note: ‘(Hazara) is also the story of a diaspora of men and women who were borne across the globe on an imperial tide that has since receded. As a child and youth I caught the era’s afterglow, as one sees at twilight the salmon-pink suffusion of a sun that has already set.’

In time, Mia and James’s ownership of the farm was passed on to their adopted daughter Anne and her husband Mick Conyngham, the author’s parents.

The story of Mia and James, Anne and Mick, and their extended families, provides the warp and weft of time and memory at the heart of Hazara. Yes, there are the drinks on the veranda and the tennis parties, but behind such surface distractions Conyngham details the accidents, happy and tragic, that make up the real work of living: childhood deaths, abandoned marriages, adoptions, fractured families. Hopes, dreams, lives abruptly ended by two world wars. The relentless harvest of time.


Review of Things Unseen by Pamela Power PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 25 November 2016 15:12

Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

“ ‘Mum always said, even if the bombs are dropping around you, you must make sure that you have your lipstick on… and clean knickers.’ ” That’s the spirit that sustains protagonist, Emma le Roux, as her seemingly perfect life is bombarded with crises in Pamela Power’s novel, Things Unseen.  And it is in this humorous tone that Power tells a deceptively light-hearted tale featuring murder, abuse, and alcoholism.

The novel takes the form of a classic ‘whodunnit’ but with a distinctly South African flavour and a Johannesburg setting.  The central character, Emma le Roux, lives a comfortable and privileged life in an affluent part of the city, but the horrors of a ‘home invasion’ and a murder swiftly dispel the illusion of perfection and provide the context for astute observations about South African society and its attitudes to crime.

In this context the author has effectively captured the underlying sense of the ridiculous that is often present in contemporary South African interactions.  At one point, for example, Captain Tshabalala is sidetracked in the middle of his investigation, as the finger print technician dusts the scene, by a conversation comparing pay scales in security and policing work, and has to be pointedly reminded about the task at hand, while Mr Le Roux is concerned with having the murder weapon, an expensive golf club, returned to him:  “That’s a Callaway Big Bertha Hybrid [he says].  Cost me six grand”.   The novel’s themes—of crime and poverty, money and power, white privilege and the plight of migrant workers, and even the fraught subjects of infertility, abortion, and parenting—are all handled with this sardonic wit, a dark humour that serves to starkly foreground the desensitization of the South African psyche.

In that atmosphere, then, the very flimsy evidence of this particular crime can be quickly pieced together to reach the convenient conclusion that the gardener, a migrant worker, must be guilty.  However, all is not as it seems and, as Emma continues to question the facts and as her placid life becomes increasingly disturbed, the secrets of the past persistently challenge the tranquility of the present.


Review of The Dream House by Craig Higginson PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 14 April 2016 12:57

Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

“This is a strange land we live in,” Looksmart says to Patricia in Craig Higginson’s novel, The Dream House.  The small farm in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands that they inhabit — a microcosm of the strange land in which they live — is particularly strange, especially on the night that Patricia and Looksmart reunite.

It is Patricia’s last night on the farm.  She has sold the land after decades of breeding ponies there and now, as an old woman, plans to relocate and to spend the remaining years of her life watching the ships in Durban’s bay from the verandah of the family home where her father used to drink his gin and tonic.  But on this final misty night, as she attempts to quietly pack up her memories, together with her belongings, Looksmart returns to unsettle everything Patricia thinks she remembers.

Patricia and Looksmart haven’t seen each other for twenty five years or more, not since he completed the private boarding school education that Patricia funded, and, although they have often thought of each over the years, the reunion is nothing that either would have expected.

Like the mist that is so prevalent in the KZN Midlands, the narrative reveals and hides, in turn, different aspects of their story.  The events of the night unfold from the perspective of five characters — Patricia, Richard, Beauty, Bheki, and Looksmart — who, also, each recount past events that gradually reveal the links and entanglements of their lives.

The novel has five parts and it is in this neat and overlapping narrative structure that Higginson’s ability as a playwright shines through.  The sections, or ‘acts’, are each rounded off so dramatically and skillfully that I imagined I could hear the stage curtain swish closed; while the authentic and plausible dialogue draws the focus in so tightly that it is as if a spotlight is shining on the characters.  Reading The Dream House, I was reminded of Chekhov’s play ‘The Cherry Orchard’.  I detected parallels in its depiction of Patricia as a woman reluctantly giving up a family farm in the midst of greater socio-political changes, and of all the characters grappling with their changing roles within society and their relationships with one other.

The dramatic qualities of the text are subtle, however, and serve as support for the interiority that the novel, as a literary form, allows, and which Higginson exploits with his multi-voiced approach.  These qualities, together with the poetic imagery and verisimilitude used to describe the surroundings, produce a novel that evokes an intense emotional response and raises questions about the wisdom of exploring the past.  Should we ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ or is it better to shoot them, as Patricia does, and bury them deep in the earth?  Can a trauma, experienced in the past, ever be resolved in the present?


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