HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

BIANCA MARAIS

Set in Johannesburg, HUM centres on Beauty Mbali and 9-year-old Robin Conrad, each of whom is impacted by the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which white police officers opened fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren. Robin’s parents are killed in the backlash, while Beauty’s daughter, Nomsa, goes missing from her Soweto school after taking part in the uprising. Robin’s liberal aunt is an airline hostess so hires Beauty, an educated Xhosa, as a caretaker for Robin so she can remain in the city and continue her quest to find her daughter. This is a difficult transition for Robin who is used to staff having a separate living unit, not using family plates and utensils and certainly not being treated as part of the family. As she bonds with comes to love Beauty, Robin withholds information about her daughter, Nomsa for fear of losing Beauty. The only criticism I have is that Robin’s narration does not ring true for a nine-year-old girl.

I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right colour, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people: a world where hatred was the common language and bricks the only words.”

“She speaks Zulu, but I am able to understand her. All our languages overlay one another like blankets of mist on a mountaintop.”

“a river of blood in the streets and the children are floating in it… they are human debris swept along in a flood of destruction.” 

“Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room…. Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: ‘friend.’ “

THE ILLEGAL

arts_books1-1-72464fd7f6b3c94d                                                                                                         LAWRENCE HILL

THE ILLEGAL seems even more timely today, with the election of Trump and his executive order to start construction of the wall on the border of Mexico, than when it was first published. Illegal follows the story of Keita Ali and his family in the fictional country of Zantoroland. It’s populated by people whose ancestors, a century and a half ago, were the slaves whose labour built the third wealthiest economy on the planet, the nearby fictional country of Freedom State.  Keita Ali is running a marathon in Freedom State against a vicious opponent who is tormenting him with racial slurs. “Go Home N—–.” Keita is not just running a race, he’s on the run from the authorities who want to deport him. With his tormentor at his heels, the unflappable hero calmly ticks his pace up a notch and begins to sing as he surges up the hill: “Want to shatter your opponent’s confidence? Just when he starts to hurt, you sing.” Keita’s sister is captured by the Zantoroland’s military government and held for ransom so Keita must run and win every race so he can buy her freedom. Hill creates a trove of fascinating characters: a violent sports agent, a woman who runs a brothel and AfricTown (the black shantytown), a prime minister who is evil incarnate, and a schoolboy who films everything by hiding in various closets.

Hill is an excellent writer. The Illegal is not to be missed.

 

 

 

CLOUD

ERICK McCORMACK

cloud Harry Steen’s life is shadowed by two events that happened when he was younger. The first was a brief but passionate affair with an intriguing beauty in the uplands of Scotland where he was about to begin his career. She jilted him for her fiance and he left with a broken heart he believed would never heal.  The second was a few years later when he was a Canadian mining executive, on a business trip to Mexico, he discovered a rare 18th century tome. The Obsidian Cloud is an account of an unexplained, true phenomenon: a black cloud with uncannily reflective properties that stalled before dispersing itself in a rain of black hail over Scotland. But it’s less this bizarre event that captures Harry’s attention than the fact that it supposedly occurred in the obscure town where, at age 21, he met his one true and unrequited love. Back at home he send the book to a rare books curator in Glasgow to see what scholars can tell him about this unusual book. The novel tells his life story: working on boats to escape Scotland and the past, chance meetings with remarkable people, being groomed for a pomccormack-180sition in a mining company and the family as well. Cloud is well written but has a weak ending.

 

GHOST BOY

MARTIN PISTORIUS with Megan Loyd Davie

Locked in Syndrome must truly be a fate worse than death. Pistorius was a normal little boy until the age of 12 but by 14 both his brain and his body were paralysed. Eventually his brain woke up but his body never did. Nobody knew he was home until years later a care

martin-with-bookgiver at the day home tried to reach him after attending a workshop. Within 18 months he was communicating with a computer, working and going to school. He writes about how much pain his body was in sitting in a wheelchair all day. When he go older it was worse because sometimes he was put down so he was sitting on his testicles and he couldn’t move nor ask for assistance.

At home his father was his main care giver. Mom found it too difficult. “My mother looked at me, her eyes filled with tears. I wished that I could reassure her, stand up from my wheelchair and leave behind this shell of a body that had caused so much pain. ‘You must die,’ she said slowly. ‘You have to die.’ The rest of the world felt so far away when she said those words. She got up and left me in the silent room. I wanted to do as she bid me that day. I longed to leave my life. As time passed, however, I gradually learned to understand my mother’s desperation and to forgive her. Little by little I learned why it was so hard for my mother to live with such a cruel parody of the once healthy child she had loved so much. Every time she looked at me she could see only the ghost boy he’d left behind.”

“However much I tried to beg and plead, shout and scream, I couldn’t make them notice me. My mind was trapped inside a useless body, my arms and legs weren’t mine to control and my voice was mute. I couldn’t make a sign or a sound to let anyone know I’d become aware again. I was invisible – the ghost boy. My father’s faith in me was stretched almost to breaking point – I don’t think it ever disappeared completely. Each day Dad, a mechanical engineer, washed and fed me, dressed and lifted me. A bear of a man with a huge beard like Father Christmas, his hands were always gentle. I would try to get him to understand I had returned, willing my arm to work. ‘Dad! I’m here! Can’t you see?’ But he didn’t notice me.

BOY is an easy read and quite a page turner. Highly recommended.

CUTTING FOR STONE

cutting-for-stone220ABRAHAM VERGHESE

Marion and Shiva Stone are born one sultry day in 1954 in Addis Ababa, the same day their mother — a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise — dies of complications from her hidden pregnancy. The boys are conjoined at the skull, separated at birth, still they feel an amazing connection. The twins are raised by Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha, a strong willed woman known as Hema, and Dr. Abhi Ghosh, both immigrants from Madras and both doctors at the hospital where the boys’ natural parents also worked. Missing Hospital, it’s called: “Missing was really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like ‘Missing.’ ” They grow up amid the political turmoil of Ethiopia. They both learn medicine beside their parents, Marion along side his surgeon father, Shiva with his gynecologyst mother. In 1979 Marion flees, first to Nairobi and finally to New York, where he qualifies as a surgeon. Shiva, too, goes into medicine, specializing in treating vaginal fistula, for which work he is acclaimed. In New York Marion finds his long lost father the famous transplant surgeon Thomas Stone, who fled at their birth and the death of his lover Sister Mary Joseph Praise.

“How beautiful and horrible life is, Hema thought; too horrible to simply call tragic. Life is worse than tragic.”

“My father, for whose skills as a surgeon I have the deepest respect, says, “The operation with the best outcome is the one you decide not to do.” Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for the assistance of a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

Stone is a great read. You learn a lot about Ethiopia and medicine.

LONG LEGS BOY

boyBENJAMIN MADISON

When Modou’s parents are both dead from AIDS and his entire village is decimated he seeks help from an African  holy man, Alhaji, who takes care of boys who have no parents. Of course there are chores for all the orphans but there are also lessons to teach them the Koran. Reba Brecken, country director for Rights for Kids Coalition comes to their compound to check that the boys are being well taken care of. She believes the children should not have to work, and that they should be with their families. Unfortunately she is blind to the reality of life in Africa. News of another man who helps boys in need that his compound had been shut down and the boys sent off to various villages, Alhaji decides to move the boys to the capital. In the city the boys have no work so they must go beg to help support themselves. But the government doesn’t like street kids and rounds them up and dumps them at various villages after beating them. Most of them slowly and painfully make their way back to the capital. Modou has the gift of speed. He whizzes through the market earning money by quickly delivering messages and packages. He is also so fast that he can avoid the police who look foolish being unable to catch him. He earns the name Toofas (Toofast) and becomes a creature of myth and legend.

The part of the story where Modou becomes a rallying figure for rebel forces is overdone and unbelievable. But the rest of the novel is great. It highlights how the best meaning aid worker can create an even bigger problem by not comprehending the whole picture. A cautionary tale.

A must read.

419

419WILL FERGUSON

419 is set in Calgary and Lagos and concerned with 419 scams where unsuspecting victims are promised riches for accepting a huge amount of money temporarily. When they agree there are suddenly multiple service charges that must be paid in order for the deal to go through. The victim here is a retired schoolteacher who trusted the scammers, lost everything and committed suicide. He left his wife and family nothing; even the family home was lost. The police are powerless in this situation. More interesting are the men on the other end of the emails, the insiders who work the fraud machine. Another character, Nnamdi, has the most exciting part of the book. We see the whole history of the Niger Delta play out through Nnamdi, with con after con laid on the land by slave traders, Shell Oil men, rampaging generals and corrupt officials. The entire area dying from the massive pollution of the oil industry.

A terrific read.