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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.

Review of Charlotte Otter's Balthasar's Gift PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 15:26

Review By Penny de Vries

Balthasar’s Gift is an extremely welcome newcomer to the South African crime fiction scene. It is refreshing to read crime fiction that is not a thinly veiled excuse to critique all that is wrong with the country, whether it be the police, the justice system or the government. It does explore the issues of our time but not in binary terms. Ambiguity and uncertainty give more credence to a narrative than do binary opposites. The characters too are real and familiar, yet uniquely themselves. The blurb describes it as hard-boiled, of which there is an element, but not too much, not so much that humanity is lost.

Maggie Cloete is a reporter on the crime beat working for a daily newspaper in Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal. She is a wonderful character; feisty, tom-boyish and with a penchant for getting too involved in the story rather than keeping her distance and reporting on it as her editor, Zacharius Patel, would prefer. She is very contrary; once told not to do something, she feels compelled to disobey. She is a hard drinker, rides a motorbike and can be quite ascerbic and bitchy. She comes from a conservative Afrikaans background but is estranged from her parents and holds very different values. The other members of staff are well-drawn characters such as Aslan Chetty, her former trainee, “who had a habit of quoting Jane Austen” and the elderly Alicia, in charge of the Archives who wafts around in a ‘lavender mist’. Then there is Ed, the photographer, who “had a way with images, not with words” and Sally-Anne, the arts reporter who was talented at propping up the egos of any men who needed it. These thumbnail sketches add colour to the characters.

The other aspect of this novel that I relish is that it is set in Pietermaritzburg, a city I know fairly well. I also know and love Cape Town but there are so many novels set in Cape Town, it gets a little tedious. The writer describes the terrain, the type of vegetation, the bird-life (“a hadeda dressed in housewife brown”) and the townships accurately and vividly; even if one did not know Pietermaritzburg it would be interesting to get to know it through Maggie’s exploits.

In the year 2000, AIDS denialism in government means that the proper medical solutions are not being implemented. An AIDS activist is killed in what appears to be a “robbery gone wrong”. Patel, her editor, sends Maggie to report on the murder and she discovers that the victim is Balthasar Meiring, a man who had phoned her a week ago to enlist her help. He wanted her to cover a case in the High Court; a class action against a doctor who sold local families a fake cure for AIDS. At the newspaper’s daily conference, she discovers that Balthasar is the son of a local farmer, “who had received an incongruously light sentence over a decade ago for killing one of his workers”. Maggie and Ed drive out to the farm to interview the parents and discovers that it is an extremely dysfunctional family.

From there, things escalate; Patel tells Maggie to ignore this case but she cannot let it go. She attends the funeral that takes place at the private school Balthasar attended. There she is able to observe the dynamic between his previous schoolmates, one of whom, Dumisane Phiri, is politically connected and very anti-Maggie. The reasons for this emerge as do his less salubrious connections. She also attends the class action court case and begins to realise that there are many convoluted and corrupt connections in the AIDS arena. Gangsters try to scare her off but nothing will deter her in her quest to discover the truth. Maggie discovers that Balthasar had adopted AIDS orphans and the nanny of his youth, Nkosazana, had been helping him look after them. Now they are stranded in his home but with no source of income. Lindiwe, who had worked with Balthasar at HIV House, opens up to her and together they are able to delve deeper. Action, suspense, twists and surprises are all present, as one would expect from crime fiction. There are various possible suspects and the reader is never sure which characters are red herrings and which is the real perpetrator.

If you want to know the rest, you will have to buy the book. You will not regret it; crime fiction combined with astute commentary on contemporary life in South Africa underpinned by an empathetic and balanced sensitivity to the nuances. I look forward to Maggie’s next assignment.


This review is part of de Vries' 2015 Reading Challenge - SA Books Only.

Review of Kriben Pillay's Three Poisons PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 21 May 2015 10:35

Review by Rasvanth Chunylall

There is something intriguing about Kriben Pillay’s short story collection, Three Poisons (2014). Inspired by the writings of David Loy, the short stories thematically addresses each of the three poisons of life as conceived by the Buddhist scholar. These include “An Unethical Clearance”, “The Threefold Tamil Rule” and “Imagining John Lennon” which examine the poisons of greed, ill will and delusion respectively. The results are flawed, yet often touching and thought-provoking.

“An Unethical Clearance” explores how nepotism, bureaucracy, ignorance, poor policy creation - and ultimately greed - derails the academic endeavour of a doctoral student. Lucky Zulu is informed that he hasn’t received ethical clearance for his submitted doctoral thesis and finds himself unable to graduate. The fate of his graduation is placed in the hands of self-serving and often corrupt authority figures. The Dean, for example, is less concerned about the value of Zulu’s research but more about how the reduction in funding and impact one less graduating doctoral student would have on his performance management agreement. As an academic himself, there's a knowing touch to Pillay’s story which readers will appreciate.

“The Threefold Tamil Rule” was inspired by family stories which were reshaped to fit the narrative. Perhaps more of a novella in length, it features three generations of the Pillai family and their experiences with the titular ability. Described as “extraordinary but little-known”, the Threefold Tamil Rule functions as a retributory evil eye of sorts that empowers the narrator and his ancestors. In the mid-1890s the narrator’s grandfather (referred to primarily by his surname ‘Pillai’) works as an accountant in the British Cantonment in South India. Pillai, together with a group of trusted associates, steals tax grain from the British and redistributes it to the poor with Robin Hood-like subversiveness. It is during the time that the Rule manifests. After a near capture one fateful night, Pillai is forced to leave on a ship carrying cheap Indian labour to South Africa. In a country where he has few resources, the Rule is put to good use. A rude man comes down with a “mysterious ailment” that leaves him a “babbling wreck” (33). Another with unsavoury intentions is struck with a virulent flu. Racists within and across the colour barrier find themselves victim to this strange power and are punished for their actions. It manifests within his son and, later, his grandson - the narrator - who continues his ancestor’s legacy by targeting the racists and hypocrites he comes into contact with during the Apartheid era.

One of the best aspects of “The Threefold Tamil Rule” is Pillay’s depiction of South African Indians. They have traditionally been portrayed as a homogenous group idealised for their unity and comradeship. While this is true to a point, Pillay rightfully complicates this belief. He reveals the tensions within the race from the sustained caste system that Pillai comes into contact with on the ship and the slurs Indians uttered against each other. There are also Indians present in the narrative who profited from enforcing Apartheid laws which affected their kin detrimentally.

The final short story, “Imagining John Lennon”, deals with a man receiving psychiatric treatment for not believing that he is John Lennon despite evidence to the contrary. In its attempt to interrogate identity, “Imagining” comes off as pretentious and sits uncomfortably with the other two stories in the collection.

That short isn’t the only misstep by the writer. While noble in sentiment, Pillay’s short stories often suffer from poor characterisation – particularly that of his main characters. He practically bludgeons you over the head with how good-looking, popular, intelligent and virtuous the characters of Zulu and Pillai are. Neither character seems to battle with their respective obstacles nor are their actions given any shades of grey. This makes them difficult to empathise with and, ultimately, somewhat tedious to read about. A further point on problematic characterisation is his depiction of the women that are linked to these men.

The volunteer who accompanies Zulu at his graduation is merely notable for her “low cut dress” (16) and attractiveness to him. Worse still, Pillai’s wife is little more than a damsel-in-distress: a beautiful, chaste woman who “silently glowed in the shadow of her handsome saviour” and was “simply content to go wherever he went” (38).

Fortunately, there is a lot more to appreciate than criticise in Three Poisons. This is a worthwhile read particularly for “The Threefold Tamil Rule” which will interest anyone drawn to literature dealing with the South African Indian experience.  Three Poisons is published by Non-Duality Press.

Review of Cayleigh Bright's Close to Home PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 09 December 2014 17:22

By Caitlin Martin

Close to Home is Cayleigh Bright’s debut novel. Cayleigh is the online editor of Glamour South Africa, and the contributing books editor of GQ South Africa. She wrote this novel while completing the UCT Creative Writing master’s programme.

The novel centres on a group of friends, all studying at the University of Cape Town, and the suspicious death of a fellow student. Cayleigh explores the complex bonds that surround this group friends, as well as darker side of wealth and privilege.  Bright drew on her experience of ‘college drama’ gleaned in her honours degree in English literature and follows in the tradition of Bret Easton Ellis (of American Psycho fame) and Donna Tartt.

This novel grapples with the unsettling and disorienting period that exists between childhood and adulthood that university tends to offer.  The characters in the novel attempt to develop their identity as adults, away from their families, while still being afforded every luxury that having wealthy parents offers them.  This leads to a group of people who struggle to reconcile their wealth and freedom with responsibility and tend to rather wallow in lives of disaffected alienation and excess.

The novel consists of eleven main characters and is written in first person narration from the viewpoints of these many characters.  The narrators, therefor, are notoriously unreliable, viewing things from both a naïve, and self-absorbed, frame of mind.  By writing this way, Cayleigh believes she is able to show greater insight into the narcissistic and self-indulgent characters who have greater insight into their friends’ characters than they would be able to express of themselves.  Don’t try to remember all the characters, you don’t need to. Cayleigh argues that close-knit relationships that exist between the characters blur individual identity.  This unsettling writing style means that, as a reader, you are left alienated from these characters, and are in a position to draw your own conclusions on the characters and events.



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