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Diane Awerbuck

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Happy Endings: Diane Awerbuck Reviews Folly by Jassy Mackenzie

FollyBy Diane Awerbuck for the Sunday Times

Erotica and humour are hard to write: fanny and funny do not, as a rule, mix. But Jassy Mackenzie has somehow pulled it off in her new novel, Folly, Umuzi’s local answer to Fifty Shades. Vivacious and witty, Folly is also a steely look at the issues that face us all as the long-term effects of our youthful mistakes become nauseatingly apparent.

It is a book that could only have been written by a person with some life experience. The novel, while it has many moments of humour, is essentially an economic horror story: the tale of what happens to a woman – “ten years too old and ten kilos too fat” – who has not been properly prepared for adulthood. The institutions she has trusted have failed Emma Caine: she is unemployed, her marriage is in tatters – her horrible husband Mark is comatose after a car accident – and the bank is coming for the house. Possession: no. Repossession: for sure.

But Folly, for all its jokes and jollification, is also the story of what a woman of character does to extricate herself from her nasty situation – and within the first five chapters Mistress Caine’s House of Pain is open for business, based in the black-painted cottage “folly” Emma’s Goth tenant has vacated without warning.

And what a lot of business her spanking-new dungeon sees! Emma is initially surprised by the number of clients she entertains, businessmen, one and all, as well as a judge and an architect named Simon Nel. Mackenzie isn’t squeamish, balancing some pretty hardcore penetration scenes with details of the scrubbing Emma does afterwards (“a ten-per cent bleach solution”) when her satisfied customers have tooled off in their luxury cars.

There are lots of sexy bits, given heft and authority by the author’s own years as a telephone dominatrix in Birmingham, but it is the cunning details – the set-ups and pay offs – that make Mackenzie the writer she is. No detail is unnecessary, and the pearl necklace described in the first couple of pages
comes into its own by the end of the book. Her five previous crime novels have made her prose neat, brisk and masterful, and when we compare her writing to, say, EL James’s, it becomes apparent who the boss really is.

These genres don’t get a lot of respect, and that’s a pity. In a world where people are allowed to make a mockery of the rules of social interaction, fictional crime and porn are needed more than ever: like Shakespearean drama, they end with the punishment of the guilty and the restoration of order. And that’s something worth reading.

That said, Simon, the love interest, is a yawn-fest, the only dull spot in the book – but then he’s there as a placeholder. In this genre there must always be a hetero hunk o’ burnin’ love, a man bland enough to slap someone else’s face on. Mackenzie doesn’t let them end in a tear-stained embrace,
though, leaving the door open for a sequel – which I hope is coming soon to a darkened room near you.

  • Folly is published by Umuzi

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Oh, the Places You’ll Go! A Review of The Ward by SL Grey

The WardThere are a lot of places that Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg can’t go anymore. Their first outing as S.L. Grey produced The Mall, which flipped the rusty, septicaemic lid on social hierarchy, consumer culture and public space.

In The Ward, their second and more terrifying offering, they peer into the bedpans and fridges of a South African hospital that harvests Donors for modification-loving Clients. Think The Merchant of Venice meets Misery, and you’re some of the way there.

The same day I finished visiting The Ward, this headline greeted me in the paper: SCULPT YOUR PERFECT FACE. It was an advertorial for what is, essentially, stage makeup – foundation – and it was targeted at black businesswomen. The gist was that, in order to avoid your complexion appearing blobbily amorphous, tons of this expensive crap should be shoveled onto your skin, making a mask. Voilà!

The subtext is heinous – and not particularly sub-. It is, in fact, the sort of thinking that plagues Lisa Cassavetes, the lily-livered femme in The Ward. Lisa suffers from Body Dysmorphic Disorder – where what you see in the mirror is not exactly what you get. She has checked herself into Johannesburg’s appalling New Hope Hospital – “No Hope” – sans medical aid or next of kin because it’s the last place her father will look. But like Lisa’s own reflection, No Hope isn’t what she expects. Dun-dun-dun! She must, ahem, put on a brave face.

Her comrade in confusion is the equally self-absorbed Josh Farrell, agency photographer and all-round arsehole. Farrell has woken up blind (geddit?) in his hospital bed: his last hours
of consciousness come back only in flashes. His perfect, pathetic “mowdel” girlfriend, Katya, has mysteriously and significantly disappeared.

After much anguish and adversity, Farrell and Lisa escape back to Jozi’s “upside” (see what they did there?) But the emptiness and banality of their lives is only magnified when each is presented with the very things they initially desired: freedom! Faultlessness! They’ve got away with it! They have survived! Except – dun-dun-DUN! – things have changed, they didn’t read the fine print, and now they must pay.

The Ward evokes all the usual tropes – what Niall Alexander terms disruption, discordance, doubling and dismemberment. What sets it apart from its more inferior peers is that, while the book nods to the features of the genre, it is also startlingly well written. Filled with foreboding and saturated with satire, it sets before the reader images so penetrating they’re hypodermic:

Listen to the quiet conversations of the nurses, the old women moaning in pain like mourners at a funeral, the building breathing, the stale air circulating, the tick of the drip machine. And underneath it all, a distant thrum, like the hospital is built over a massive beehive, or a full stadium buried hundreds of metres deep.

Ultimately The Ward details our anxiety as well as our reluctance to trust any authority that is, at best, incompetent, and at worst, unashamedly malevolent. It is social commentary at its most frighteningly palatable – and it will give you nightmares.

It should. Bad dreams are the way that we understand that we are on the wrong path. The skewed universe of the hospital is so familiar because we readers recognise our own helplessness when we must trust our physical well-being to an uncaring institution.

This is the mark of decent horror writing: the events of The Ward seem paralysingly possible. Its contents bleed into the real because they deliver an extreme vision of everyday greed and neglect. If you aren’t at death’s door when you’re admitted, “… you will be when you leave.” Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

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The Heart of the Matter: A Review of The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods by Jamala Safari

I was afraid of this book. When we read what others have written, their words become part of us. The prose sinks into our layers like sediment. It settles there into awareness and cannot be unread.

And I was right to fear it.

Jamala Safari‘s The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods is about the unmaking of a person, a community, a country – a journey, as the author’s last name suggests, in the land of desolation.

But it is also the story of remaking those identities.

Risto Mahuno is 15 when he sees his two best friends blown to bits on the soccer pitch. Hoping to protect him from the same fate, his middle-class parents send Risto away from their home town of Bukavu, in the war-torn eastern Congo.

The exodus has become common: boys (who run the risk of being coopted into the rebel militias) and girls (who suffer gang rape and slavery as the rebels’ “wives”) must go to their grandparents’ villages to escape unwanted attention, but the ploy is unsuccessful.

Risto is captured and quickly realises his survival depends on his cooperation. He becomes one of the most feared kadogo – “the small ones” in the Mashi dialect, a word that carries with it the abomination of training children to kill.

How Risto retains his sanity is the true subject of this book: the real gore and terror end halfway through, when Risto, beset by cerebral malaria and his vicious rival, Amani, ends up in hospital.

He travels in stages more than 2000km to a refugee camp in Mozambique. Even then, it is not enough to recover physically from his travails: Risto hears voices, thinks he is followed by the ones he has killed and has himself become a ghost. Whereas before he was stunned into silence, now he cannot stop talking, even in his sleep.

Safari’s book is a catalogue of the institutions to which we are all subject, voluntarily and involuntarily: family, church, hospital and militia. This sense of community, of belonging for better or worse to some group larger than oneself, is the most fundamental organising principle of humanity.

When we find ourselves expelled from those groups, or when we choose consciously to reject them, we are lost.

But we can relocate ourselves with our stories. We tell them to other people. We write them, and others read them.

Safari dedicates The Great Agony to his cousin, Willy-wa-Bene Kagayo, who was kidnapped from their home in Bukavu by the militia. The prose devastates. It should not count more because it is real, but it does: because this is still going on; because the author is providing a chronicle of an atrocity that becomes – by its narration – part of an archive.

That archive is not simply one of loss, brutality and horror: it is about the end of the katabatic journey, the narrative we hear only because its subject has withstood his suffering, the song of the survivor. Living well really is the best revenge.

The self-making of Safari has itself spawned a mini-mythology. Having studied science at tertiary level in the Congo, in South Africa as a refugee he was reduced to working as a car guard in Franschhoek. He taught himself English – his fourth language – and eventually completed a biotechnology degree at UWC.

The dense lyricism of his idiom makes for a language so rich that nearly every sentence in The Great Agony had to be recast, so that it could be understood by native English speakers.

“Why,” asked Helen Moffett as she painstakingly edited his work, “did you not simply write in French and translate it afterwards?” It did not occur to him, Safari told her.

For this man, who works with refugees in South Africa, the simplest way to the heart of the matter is always straight through whatever lies in his way.

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Beauty in Vileness: A Review of Invisible Furies by Michiel Heyns

Paris has us, writes Diane Awerbuck about Michiel Heyns’ Invisible Furies

Has any city been more worshipped than Paris? It must stand for everything except what it is – tall buildings with poor plumbing; impressive art, mostly by foreigners; and tasty, overpriced food.

Appearance, as Michiel Heyns points out in his new book, Invisible Furies, is everything. To penetrate the world behind the façade and to know its secrets, animates a certain kind of traveller – and a certain kind of reader.

Into the apparently unwelcoming milieu steps Christopher Turner, who is presented with “the half-truth, the mixed motive, the hidden agenda, the possible other case”. His mission is to retrieve from Paris the son of his old friend, Daniel de Villiers. To curry favour with le père (the father), Turner hopes to return the young man to the family wine farm in Franschhoek.

Eric, le fils (the son), was an unreconstructed oaf in his previous incarnation, and Turner is curious to see what changes the French life has visited upon him. Turner is acquainted with the gilding effect of Paris. He last visited the city on a misbegotten student holiday 30 years before with his frenemy, Daniel who, for all his faults, “could and would be loved”.Their getaway was hijacked by Marie-Louise whomarried the desirable but brutish Daniel. Back in the present, Turner plays ambassador to their prodigal son, negotiating the tricky territory of personal desire and social duty.

Still a victim of his heart’s “invisible furies”, Turner finds the French Eric is a more perfect avatar: “The son is what the father could have been, if he’d followed the generous impulses of his nature rather than the promptings of his caution. In Eric I can see what I loved in Daniel, as I once knew him.”

That use of the past tense is significant. Turner’s position is untenable. In the course of his extended visit, he rejects his role as emissary – Eric is better off where he is. Turner is not thanked for his pains.

Heyns has long been infatuated with Henry James, who referred to many of his own shorter works as deriving motive “from some noted adventure, some felt embarrassment, some extreme predicament, of the artist enamoured of perfection, ridden by his idea or paying for his sincerity”.

These writer-hero characters are prone to confusing their fictions with the conflicting fictions of the “real” world. Heyns’s Turner is no exception – a man absurdly ill-equipped to deal with the Parisian present. Like the characters in fairy tales, he assumes that truth and beauty necessarily concur.

This conflation lands him in trouble as soon as he sets pied to terre and finds his first new friend is a man of surpassing ugliness, while the physically perfect are corrupt to the core. This gargoyle Zeevee is Turner’s ticket to the Parisian cool set, into which Eric has inveigled himself as a claqueur, a hottie hired to applaud in the front row at fashion shows (and other dramas) – one step up from a “taxi-boy” or prostitute.

By the end of the novel, Turner learns what Henry James could have told him at the get-go, that “hideousness grimaces at you from the bosom of loveliness, and beauty blooms before your eyes in the lap of vileness”.

The future of Paris belongs to the “rats” of Europe, like the Romanian rentboys who are “good-looking, before they lose their teeth”.

The tropes in this accomplished book work well because they are ageless. We’ll always have Paris. Or – as it does Heyns – Paris will always have us.

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Tied Up in a Crisis: A Review of Entanglement by Steven Boykey Sidley

EntanglementSteven Sidley’s difficult but brilliant character, Jared Borowitz, bids for happiness with mixed success

Parcelling out unsolicited advice, relentlessly dominating conversation, slavering over any female under the age of 30 – meet Jared Borowitz, “charismatic physicist” and aging star of Entanglement.

It is an understatement to say that Borowitz is full of himself.

It is a wonder that he is able to share a bed with the saintly Katherine at all: his head needs its own apartment. Smart he may be but, well into his teaching career, he is still unable to tell the basic difference between intellect and wisdom.

Entanglement details his wordy journey from the former to the latter, and from nigh nihilism to warm humanism.

The title itself is a term from quantum theory: Einstein called entanglement “spooky action at a distance.”

In its most simplistic sense, it is the predictable correlation between isolated particles of energy or matter, regardless of their proximity. In a narrative context, Steven Sidley means characters’ cause-and-effect behaviour, the basic tenet of any plot. Borowitz is in the throes of a mid-life crisis.

As a reader, it’s hard to care about a man who’s “[e]nvied by the whole physics community. Good research, good university, respect of your peers, tenure, minor celebrity, grant money and delectable girlfriend.”

He travels to London to visit his old mentor, a world-famous physicist, who’s on his death bed.

He is surprised to realise that he has been under a misapprehension all along, and that the meaning of life is “not to be right, but to be happy”.

Afterwards, the depressed Borowitz is on the Underground when a gang of hooligans harasses the passengers. A life-long coward, he finally punches a boy in flight from the carriage and finds that he quite likes this particular sort of power, too.

Back home, his social group goes on a weekend away in the country – think The Decameron meets Deliverance – where the unlikely Barbara, a girl with the sex drive of a German tourist in a shebeen, provokes the attentions of a psychopath.

Nicknamed “Dostoevsky” by Borowitz, the man rustles up a side-kick and follows them back to their rented house to exact revenge. In a narrative twist, the “pornographic” and “peristaltic” Barbara plumps to have sex with her attacker and they disappear upstairs.

In the event, it turns out that Katherine is the real hero of Entanglement. In a plot-dump on the final pages, it emerges that she knows sign language, and can thus communicate with the deaf-mute partner of their murderous attacker. This is fortunate: Borowitz, fresh from his testosterone-fuelled triumph on the Tube, is trying to burn the chap’s penis off with a lighter.

There is some humour, which serves to expose Borowitz’s hubris. He only reads male authors because women writers “lack muscularity”.

When Sidley avoids mixed metaphors and malapropisms, and says very simply what he means, his style can be pointed and passionate: “We are machines, formed by genetics and unpredictable and arbitrary external events; we possess neither will nor control and therefore moral certainty is a myth, a human concept moulded to assuage a frightened and bewildered species [sic].”

Spooky action at a distance, indeed.

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A Dose of Reality: Review of Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present

Without a doubt, Nadine Gordimer is the closest thing we have to a national conscience, one of a chorus of South African writers decrying the kleptocracy that is the nouveau ANC. Novelists can get away with this sort of thing because nobody in this country buys books.

But her new novel, No Time Like the Present, goes beyond the call of duty. It should really be titled Bigotry for Dummies, or perhaps, Gordimer: The Best of. Polemic does not make for readable prose, and No Time Like the Present is a manifesto, not a novel. Its morose and anthropological tale of an interracial couple – stop me if you’ve heard this one – will have you packing for Perth quicker than you can say “ubuntu”, if only to escape the hectoring.

We assume the title is sarcastic: the characters are always backward-looking, the products of their race-bound pasts. Jabulile and Steve Reed met in Swaziland during the Struggle-with-a-capital-S. Now she is a lawyer and he is a lecturer, living in the Suburbs (the other capital S), raising two coffee-coloured but less attractive kids. They remember fondly their time in an exile practically Elysian compared to the really hard stuff – how to be normal – while engaging in the sorts of conversations punted only by the very young and the very drunk.

The events of the present are exclusively topics of the post-apartheid/post-apocalyptic “cadre bourgeoisie”: Steve’s unsexy adultery scene is practically light relief in the face of the relentless march of disappointments, betrayals and atrocities. Crime? Tick. Aids? Tick. Xenophobia? Tick. It’s like going to hell and finding the only reading material is the Mail & Guardian, and it is a terrific waste of a tour of the wunderkammer that is the mind of Gordimer.

In a departure from the twiggy, literate prose of the rest of her oeuvre, Gordimer presents here with a writing style Faulknerian in its opacity – a startlingly fragmentary, demented technique, as if someone has tried to transcribe her notebooks from scratch: “With the need of a demand of using it illegally in the cause of the revolution that had somehow justified his rather random choice of a career, was he to stay in the paint manufacturing industry as the meaning of his working life”.

The lack of punctuation is perhaps attributable to the ennui of a disillusioned society that has got what it wished for – a freedom so thorough that all the ordinary rules of interaction are rendered permeable or unnecessary.

But rules are there for a reason. People live; writers write; readers must make sense of what has been lived and written. The jumps in tense and person, and occasional stream-of-consciousness format, may be deliberate -but they intersect with scenes of just plain bad writing: “They made love not war between them that night.”

The writer’s puzzling interest in the logistics of gay sex provides some entertainment, but this is overshadowed by her fetishisation of the same. She unblushingly refers to the gay neighbours as Dolphins throughout the novel because they are initially seen in their swimming pool. How this is an exclusively homosexual activity is not explained; neither is there an examination of this reverse anthropomorphism, the same kind at the heart of any prejudice.

If you want evidence that Gordimer is the South African Susan Sontag, and a demonstration of her percussive range and talent, read Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 instead. We catch a single glimpse of the old potency only at the end of No Time Like the Present: “[T]here are so many unspeakable happenings skin-to-skin close, human to human, real, not symbolic, around them.”

Except they are not, of course, unspeakable at all. A luta continua.

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Wandering About: A Review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63

My sister used to have a saying: I don’t chew my cabbage twice. She would use it when she didn’t feel like repeating herself. Stephen King’s latest novel, 11.22.63 (the day Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F Kennedy), feels like a lot of mastication.

That is, in part, deliberate. The plot deals with Jake Epping, a high school teacher in 2011, who finds himself on a mission to prevent the assassination in 1963.

He travels through a portal in his dying friend Al’s diner to 1958, and then acclimatises in a number of small towns for a few years. The other 740 pages cover his comparisons of the two time periods and the inevitable setting up of a love interest which necessarily culminates in an agonising choice – to save his lady love, the unlikely Sadie, or to save the world.

King addresses the science of the time travel unsatisfactorily: every trip through the portal is a complete reset, except it’s not, and every trip also leaves a residue, so that multiple future “strings” co-exist.

When a reader finds their attention wandering to the finer details, you know you’ve lost them. This is disappointing but not unexpected, given King’s occupation of the scene since the 1970s (11.22.63 is book number 54).

His name gets bandied about a lot – usually disparagingly, as if massive commercial success precludes a sensibility.

But he’s a smart guy: he makes a distinction between “literary” and “genre” writing (a debate that’s pretty hot on the South African scene) by saying that literary fiction is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Genre writing – the kind he claims to do – examines ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The distinction is not very useful. King easily produces prose that belongs in Salinger or Roth: “Beautiful young presidents lived and beautiful young presidents died, beautiful young women lived and then they died, but the broken sewer pipe beneath the courtyard of the old Worumbo mill was apparently eternal.”

Essentially, King is all about story. He writes across genres: he may differentiate them (somewhat disingenuously) as fright, terror and gross-out, saying that if he can’t get to the reader through the first two channels, he’ll settle happily for the third.

Since he first appeared, King has also produced seven books in the Dark Tower saga, a kind of world-bending cowboy opera – and 11.22.63 fits most comfortably alongside these.

The novel is a kind of love song to the small towns of King’s youth, with all their good folk and good eats and good cars (and also their knee-jerk racism and – by God! – cigarettes).

But it has the sense about it of gramps settled back in the La-Z-Boy, saying, “When I was your age.”

The evocation of scene just doesn’t work: the characters walk and talk, but they could do that anywhere.

In summary, it’s hard to feel passionately one way or another about 11.22.63, and this is its failing: the lukewarm nature of revisionism, especially of something that was such a public experience as the death of Kennedy and the mourning into which the killing plunged his family and, by extension, the US.

The novel revisits themes common to King’s work – the protagonist’s initial isolation from the community, the imperative to do the right thing, the redeeming power of love – even across time, it seems. There is nothing wrong with those themes, but this book doesn’t do anything new or impressive.

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Dysfunctional Wonderland: A Review of Terry Westby-Nunn’s The Sea of Wise Insects

The Sea of Wise InsectsSigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, said there are no accidents. Terry Westby-Nunn’s debut novel, The Sea of Wise Insects, takes that notion to the extreme.

The significantly named Alice Wolfe is the veteran of more disasters than she can remember. Covered in scars both physical and emotional, she has 329 stitches – and that’s just on the outside.

It’s safe to say Alice is at odds with the world – with her writerly ex, Ralph; with her coke-schnarfing brother, Andrew; with his skeletal blonde inamorata, Veronica; with her coiffed mother, an icy bitch at the best of times. (Tellingly, Mr Wolfe is an absentee dad who calls in every three months to offer insights into issues). Alice’s family has always been splintered: she doesn’t belong in it.

Her struggle for identity is littered with the mistakes we make in our 20s – lazy career choices; sad, bad men. Alice is routinely defined by someone else: she is a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a secretary. When things happen to her, she is “cursed by fate”: each new setting is another horrible Wonderland.

Her passive aggression makes a distinction between injuries that are self-inflicted and self-nominated (the ones we allow others to do to us). We see this apparent contrast in the weird Hotel Tisca, a seedy British halfway house that Alice tells herself is for recovering amputees.

More importantly, she is at odds with her own stories. Whether she is proud of her knack for survival or not is a major motif: guilt and responsibility are at the heart of the action -not least because Alice has told the police she was driving when Veronica is fatally wounded in a car accident.

As Westby-Nunn’s novel progresses, there are differing interpretations of events. The characters negotiate, but we never know what is “real”, or who is telling “the truth”. These parallel universes are significant.

Alice, so clearly out of control of her life, must find who is behind the machinations that will land her in jail for culpable homicide: she is a character in search of one, believable, story.

The search for definition is also an intense interior monologue. Quite literally, Alice must overturn received narratives.

Since his disappearance, Ralph has published a book titled The Sea of Wise Insects. When Alice reads it, she realises he has used “Lucy” (the reversal of “Alice”) and her family fiction for his own purposes. What so unsettles Alice is that she is no longer certain which version is true.

Westby-Nunn focuses on the classic question of fate and free will – how much say we really have in what happens to us. Both books hit the same nerve: they deal with why families are dysfunctional; how we cope with that by making up stories; what happens when the people we rely on turn out to be untrustworthy.

The novel deals with these traditional themes but is also saturated with South African cultural references. Similarly, The Sea of Wise Insects could not have been written before David Lynch, or emo, or Country Death Song. Like Alice Hoffman, Westby-Nunn locates herself as a feminist magic-realist.

As with most debut novels, the pace is uneven. The prose packs most punch when it relies on clear, startling metaphors, hammered home with sound devices: “How will Veronica’s mother marry her flawless daughter to this foreign substance, this deviant drug that belongs in film and magazine articles – not in her daughter’s bright red, quite dead, blood?”

Westby-Nunn makes talented comparisons, and we need to see more of them.

Conversely, the reliance on rhetorical questions drags the book down. While the conceit mimics the circular logic of the existential crisis, the lines don’t need the extra weight. Less is more, even in South African Gothic.

In Wonderland the fantastical merges with the psychological – but it all works out in the end.

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Wormhole: A Review of Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh

NinevehHenrietta Rose-InnesNineveh is at once a passionate homage to place and space, and a sensuous exploration of metamorphosis. She sets out the basic premise of the novel: ‘I love the [idea of] wild creatures inheriting human dwellings: such a potent image of the order of things overthrown. Or an older order re-established.’

She proceeds with quiet, violent humour to narrate the experiences of the gratuitously named Katya Grubbs, the daughter of an exterminator who is determined not to exterminate. In their bilious ‘boomslang green’ overalls, Painless Pest Relocations (Katya and her nephew, Toby) arrive at scenes of domestic upheaval caused by the emergence of things better off hidden. The opening chapter alone – Katya’s revenge on the rich and rude Mrs Brand – is worth the price of the book.

Nineveh itself is Mr Brand’s ‘Mesopotamian fantasy’, a grotesque and sprawling housing estate built on reclaimed land. There is trouble, in every sense, with the foundations, and Katya is called in to eradicate the mysterious and terrifying beetle at fault. Rose-Innes explains her characters’ fascination with the blurred boundaries of co-habitation: ‘In Cape Town there are many such rooms, many worlds running side by side, sometimes without mutual acknowledgement. Nineveh is a charged space because it is at a nexus of worlds that often don’t engage with each other: wealth and poverty, natural and built, legitimate and criminal, planned and organic.’

The insects exist but are overlooked until they threaten the integrity of the man-made: they are the underdogs, the little guys, the trillion denizens of the underworld of water, electricity, sewage – essential services that are only brought to our attention when they are disrupted. Under her inquisitive gaze, the tiny insectile lives are exposed, embossed, rendered in exquisitely intimate detail, like Robert Hooke’s flea, which is ‘adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed…’

Rose-Innes extends this talent for scrutiny to her protagonist, who prides herself on being similarly under the radar, similarly interested in ‘exploring the rooms of strangers’. Katya is single, independent, bug-loving; she abandons her own neglected home in Observatory to live temporarily in Nineveh; she wishes the anonymous arrangement was permanent.

Rose-Innes specialises in these tender but tough-minded heroines, the ‘girl buccaneers’ who want to be people rather than women. Katya herself is used to strange situations, having grown up with a well-intentioned but inept father. The two motherless sisters – the pale, prim Alma and the tomboy ‘Katyapillar’ – must accommodate the shifty, shiftless Len, as hapless an adult as any child: ‘The frightening part was that they, the Grubbs, lived in a merciless world, full of hostile objects that could at any time rear up and hurt them.’

As grown-ups the girls avoid the embarrassment of Len, so when he piggybacks as consultant on Katya’s cushy Nineveh project, she finds herself thrown back into a surprisingly painful past. When I ask Rose-Innes whether Len is mildly bipolar, at the very least, she seems surprised: she sees him as ‘cheerfully ferocious’. The novel deals consistently with that tricky distinction between what is merely eccentric or unorthodox, and what is wantonly destructive.

Rose-Innes expertly layers her themes: our panic at the swarm; the fight against entropy; the undeclared war of the haves and haves-not. Nineveh can equally be read as an economic horror story: the potential loss of investor confidence in Nineveh; the status and sterility money confers on its owners; what poverty and dependence mean for Katya, Len, the security guards and trinket-sellers, people on the brink.

At the heart of the novel is the fear that possessing things makes us beholden to them. Insects, at least, are spared these choices. We are the poor creatures who must fight for our place in the food chain – but there is some comfort in that. Rose-Innes comments, ‘Katya attempts, and fails, to foil her destiny. She ends up where she’s always feared being. Some people have found the ending of the story sad, but I think that Katya finds freedom in acknowledging and embracing her itinerant nature, the rootlessness that she’s always resisted.’

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