Review 1728: A Sin of Omission

A Sin of Omission opens with Stephen Mzamane making a long journey to see his best friend, Albert Newnham, across the region known in the 19th century as Kaffraria on the Cape of South Africa. During this journey, the novel looks back on his life.

Picked up as a starving child in the bush by Reverend Basil Rutherford, Stephen is raised at a mission to become an Anglican priest. Once his family learns where he is, his father brings his older son, Mzamo, there too, reasoning that the boys will not succeed unless they learn to be English. The Ngqika tribe has been driven off its lands by the British, and because of a prophecy that foretold the British would leave if the people destroyed their crops and animals, his father has killed his cattle and burned his crops. Although he is an important man, he has to work on the roads to avoid starving.

The Church is making it a practice to raise the sons of important natives as British clerics in an attempt to convert the people. Both Stephen and Mzamo are intended for this program. However, Mzamo is rebellious while Stephen is dedicated and devout, so Mzamo is ejected from the program.

Stephen is eventually sent to Canterbury to be educated at the Missionary College. There, although he is a fish out of water, he becomes best friends with a fellow student, Albert Newnham. Unfortunately for this friendship, Albert eventually chooses to marry a girl who is completely unsuited to be a missionary’s wife and is racist.

Things begin to go wrong after the young men take an ill-considered shortcut so as not to be late for tea, but Stephen only begins to learn the fruits of this event when he returns to Africa. Although he still needs to pass Greek and Latin exams to become a priest, unlike his white fellows, he is given a post far from any libraries or tutors. The job he expected to get working at the missionary college with his beloved Mfundisi Turvey, principal of that college, eventually goes to Albert. Instead of being give a post together, as promised, they are separated. In fact, Stephen is alone because the nearest cleric to his post is racist.

Stephen is also no longer a part of his own people, although his brother plays a large part in his fate. The major events of this novel are initiated when he learns of his brother’s death.

This novel is partially based on the life of Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, a missionary of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. Although it didn’t initially pull me in, I eventually found it absorbing and heart-rending. This is a novel I probably wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for my Walter Scott project.

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Day 993: Slipping

Cover for SlippingI have read two novels by Lauren Beukes and greatly enjoyed their mashup of crime fiction and science fiction. So, I thought I’d love Slipping, a collection of short stories, essays, and other writings.

Beukes’s writing is energetic and her ideas unusual, often gruesome. Her stories are often bizarre. But, oddly enough, after a while they seemed to be very similar. Most of them are set in South Africa in what appears to be the near future, although some are set on other planets. Many are violent; many have characters leading glitzy but vapid lives. They feature a lot of slang that may be invented. There is a glossary, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late.

“Muse” is a short poem about the difficulty of writing, in which the writer receives gloves made of “muse skin” with barbed hooks in the fingertips.

link to Netgalley“Slipping” is about athletes who are artificially enhanced competing in a race. One of them is even a dead body. “Confirm/Ignore” is about catfishing. “Branded” offers advertizers a brand new idea for sponsorship. “Smileys” is a dystopian tale about a street vendor defending herself against extortion. “Princess” puts a startling interpretation on the story of the princess and the pea.

I don’t know why I felt this sameness, as the stories are obviously varied in nature, but I found myself not wanting to read more. I think some of the images were just to grotesque for me.

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Day 828: Sex and Stravinsky

Cover for Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky is about two families that live far apart from each other but eventually meet. Caroline and Josh live in England with their daughter Zoe, while Hattie and Herman live in South Africa with their daughter Cat.

Caroline is Australian, tall, beautiful, and vastly capable. All her life she has been striving to please her mother, who continues to favor her other daughter Janet. Caroline leaves Australia to study in England and eventually marries Josh, a small, mild-mannered theatre academic. They struggle financially for their first few years. They are just able to afford their own house when Caroline’s mother moves to England without warning. She demands that they buy her a house and give her an allowance, and they seem unable to resist her commands. So, they continue struggling, living in a bus even though they have two professional salaries.

Hattie was Josh’s girlfriend until she met Herman. She was a ballerina despite the lack of support from her family. But when she married Herman, she started teaching and began writing a series of children’s books about a girl who wants to dance. Herman, a wealthy businessman, is away on business most of the time, and Hattie’s teenage daughter Cat treats her with contempt.

Caroline and Josh’s daughter Zoe has always wanted to learn ballet, and she adores the ballet series written by Hattie, who was Josh’s first love. But Caroline thinks Zoe is being silly about wanting to dance, even though Josh’s career deals heavily with ballet. Caroline says that in any case they can’t afford ballet lessons.

When Josh goes to a conference in South Africa, he reconnects with Hattie. Caroline finds out something shocking about her mother that sends her flying to South Africa to find Josh; Hattie finds out her lodger has a secret identity.

Trapido’s novels are witty and engaging. I always love them. They are sparkling with amusing dialogue, they have likable and not so likable characters, but ones that seem to be real people. Trapido continues to be one of my favorite writers.

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Day 738: The House Gun

Cover for The House GunWhen Nadine Gordimer died last year, I thought it was about time I read something by her. I’ll say right up front that I did not find The House Gun easy to get into.

Almost the only characters of any depth are Claudia and Harald Lindgard, an older upper-middle-class liberal white couple living, I assume, in Johannesburg, although the city is never mentioned by name. The novel is set in the 1990’s, just after De Clerc has left office and the nation is stumbling to find its way in a new order.

Claudia and Harald are disturbed in their gated complex one night by a friend of their son Duncan who comes to report a horrible event. Duncan has been living in a compound in a separate house from three gay men. One of them has been murdered, and Duncan has been arrested for it.

The story is mostly about the effect this event has on the couple’s marriage. At first very close, they are driven apart almost immediately. They know nothing about what happened, and Duncan isn’t talking. Eventually they learn from Duncan’s advocate, Hamilton Motsamai, that Duncan did indeed shoot Carl Jesperson after finding him having sex with Duncan’s girlfriend Natalie.

There is much more to the story, but it comes out slowly. And Gordimer’s writing style is so abrupt and choppy, her viewpoint so removed and analytical, that the novel seems chilling. This impression is heightened by the tendency to use pronouns or other nouns instead of names for the other characters, especially for Natalie, who is referred to as “the girl,” and the victim, who is referred to as “he” or “him.” Obviously, since the novel is from the point of view of the couple, this naming is a distancing technique to separate the parents from the victim and the person they consider the instigator, but the overall effect is to also distance the reader. I have no frame of reference to know if this writing style is typical of Gordimer or not.

Of course, there are other, more political points to the novel. Although viewing themselves as liberals, Claudia and Harald are shaken to find how biased they are. For example, they wonder at first about the competency of Duncan’s advocate just because of Motsamai’s color. Racial and stereotypical comments permeate the book. It is clearly an issue that is on everyone’s mind.

Then again, the presence of the gun is an important issue. In an article about the novel in The New York Times, a statistic was quoted that after the violent and abusive regime of De Clerc ended and Mandela came into power, official statistics of violence in South Africa increased tenfold. The young men in the compound had bought the gun to protect themselves in case someone broke in. If it hadn’t been sitting there on the table, no one would have been killed. That’s a point that we in the states, with our own issues, should pay attention to.

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Day 508: Conversations with Myself

Cover for Conversations with MyselfI was deeply disappointed with Conversations with Myself, which reads as if it was thrown together by people who don’t know much about publishing or the interests of readers. It was assembled from notes, diary extracts, letters, and interviews, probably without much interaction with the man himself. (Although it is solely credited to Mandela, it is fairly obvious from some of the notes that it was put together by committee.)

Context is one of the biggest problems with the book, that and organization. Perhaps some attempt was made to order the excerpts by subject or time. It is hard to tell. But except for short notes about where the information came from, no effort is made to explain the context of the excerpts. It is as if the editors of the book are assuming that its readers are intimately familiar with the events in Mandela’s life. He makes a journey, for example, and writes about it in his diary, but there is no introduction about the journey’s purpose.

One of the first things I encountered on beginning to read (besides three typos on the first two pages) was a note that an entry was from a letter to a particular person. The back of the book includes an alphabetical list with descriptions of some of the people mentioned. Naturally, I wanted to understand who Mandela was writing to. But the name was not listed.

Even if it had been listed, the information there is written like an abbreviated biographical dictionary or business résumé—in partial sentences, listing the person’s work positions, accomplishments, imprisonments, with lots of acronyms. When I am reading a book like this, I want to know the person’s relationship to Mandela. I want to read a blurb that gives me some sense of the person. I want to know if someone was Mandela’s friend for many years or a trusted colleague. As an extreme example, sandwiched between Winnie Mandela’s employment history and memberships in various organizations is the bald statement “Married to Nelson Mandela, 1958-96 (separated 1992).” That’s it for Winnie.

Let’s not forget the acronyms and organizations. Between my early attempts to look up names and acronyms in the back and the little information gleaned from doing so, I soon gave up referring to that list. As an example of the type of information offered, the African National Congress is explained in terms of its founding date, the dates it was banned, and its current status. But why was it formed? What are its goals? What has it achieved? Of course, I have heard of it for years, but I really don’t know much about it. Again, context.

This book could have been effective and interesting with more attempts to organize the material, write more informative introductions, and rework the appendix. Instead, it is simply confusing, with a few gems of thoughtful prose. I wish I had read The Long Walk to Freedom instead.