Gem Squash Tokoloshe -review

 

Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel Zadok

Summary in a quote: “Somehow, these imaginings become my reality.”

My bestie knows me well; I like reading South African authors and stories based in Africa. I also love a family drama and a little madness… So, this was a wonderful gift to receive, thanks bean!

As usual, I’m about 12 years behind with this review. ‘Gem Squash Tokoloshe’ was published in 2005 after Zadok entered a competition to get a novel published. This story was one of the winners and also Zadok’s first novel.

The things I loved about this book also became the things that annoyed me slightly and broke the magical spell. The story opens on 7 year old Faith. Her parents are in the beginning stages of a divorce and the mental illness is already showing in her mother’s eyes.

Faith’s life goes from idyllic to shattered in the first four chapters. In chapter five, as her parents have a loud and violent argument, she narrates; “The stitches that held my jersey together began to unravel”. What a beautiful image of her life unraveling.

Another great image and a piece of foreshadowing is when Faith describes her mother’s bruised face; “Her face was now divided into two sides, her profiles different people”. It is quite telling and evocative.

As a first novel, I think it is a great story. However, I feel that it needed some tightening up regarding repeated metaphors and certain images. For example; Faith faints or passes out so many times over the course of the novel that I started to roll my eyes at the signs. She also vomits a lot. Too many chapters open with Faith waking up or some description of the morning. These repetitions pushed me out of the fictional world and showed me the image of a writer sitting behind a desk biting her pen.

I also struggled with the term ‘fairies’. I mean, is this African folklore with it’s Tokoloshes and ancestors, or is it Western “fairies” and “ghouls”? I guess it’s another example of how much her mother did not fit in anywhere.

The few times that the reader meets the father, he is depicted as a suffering Jesus, innocent, loving and even on a cross. Then suddenly, he’s leaving them and punching Faith’s mother “squarely in the face”. I assumed this was a foreshadow of something to come later in the novel, but we never see him again. Perhaps this speaks to Faith’s understanding of God??? He’s just not there for her??? I don’t know… But, I guess this mirrors life as we often don’t get the answers or the closure we’re looking for.

However, there’s also her name; Faith. Odd choice for a mother and father who don’t seem to have any religious inclinations. Faith’s “Ouma” took her to church a handful of times but that was the extent of her religious experience. Well, her mother would also blame God when people or animals died, saying, for example; “He’s gone, Faith. God’s taken him.”

The sexism and misogyny of the male characters is appalling but I guess quite realistic for the culture and the time. The father skips out on the marriage and the mother takes the blame and social stigma. Oom Piet is the devil. Ugh. I’ve known too many Oom Piets, unfortunately. Then Doctor Fourie claims “Women think too much, don’t get on with things”… I could punch him.

However, I feel that the male characters are all caricatures. I mean, there’s a character called “Merve the perv”. That’s pretty much all we know about him; he’s a perv. Which I guess is reverse misogyny on Zadok’s part, 10 points.

I enjoyed seeing the world through 7-year old Faith’s eyes. Repetitions aside, the voice was innocent and engaging. Part 2 was not as gripping. Faith as an adult was less precious and more brat-ish and spoilt, especially seeing as I had already figured out the twist that was coming later. There were lots of flashbacks in this half but now the childish voice was grating. In Faith’s own words; “I’m like Alice, grown too big”, referring to Alice in Wonderland which is a good explanation of how she feels to me as the reader.

The opening chapter if Part 2 really alienated me from her. She was so mean spirited and bitter. At her mother’s funeral she thinks “God forgive her. I can’t” and in light of the twist ending, I find this interesting. If she could never forgive her mother, how will she handle the truth? She also, never shows any remorse for her wretched treatment of her mother. This made me feel so much pain for the mother and the lot that life dealt her. Perhaps, in Bella’s position, I might also have chosen the fairies.

And I guess, that is part of the take away for me; there isn’t always a reason for the terrible things that happen. There’s this ridiculous saying that we dole out to people grieving near us; ‘everything happens for a reason’. No. Sometimes it’s just a senseless tragedy or an atrocity and there is no greater meaning than that.

Of course, we must address the issue of memory in this story and how it can deceive. There’s the obvious subject of Faith’s amnesia regarding the night Nomsa died and how the memory is returned to her; memory, or the lack of it, is critical to Faith’s character as an adult. But there’s also this:

“I could never see her properly, not all of her, and what I could see was so fleeting that it still left me with nothing to hold on to. Memory is fickle and it fades fast, soon she was just a faceless name, attached to a set of stories I told myself, alone in the bathroom. The loss of her memory made me feel small and insignificant and homeless, like I belonged nowhere.” (Pg 203)

Probably my favourite quote of the novel. And, if you haven’t read the book, this is said about Nomsa, her Nanny, not her mother. It’s so true how the memory of someone’s face fades and it feels like maybe they never existed at all. It’s a devastating realisation.

She also describes the process of remembering her father’s face:

“Somehow over the years, my father has transmuted in my memory; features pilfered from others, a schoolteacher’s nose, an old boyfriend’s eyes, have combined with his and made him different. The real him, staring at the camera, is a stranger to me.” (Pg 239)

Zadok was quoted in 2005 as saying “The book is really about belief and the influence society has on children.” Perhaps this explains the last page where she returns to Mia and Molly. These women have become her family and are as responsible for who she is as her parents are. As is every other person who has crossed her path, Nomsa, Oom Piet, Tannie Hettie, even Ketso. They have all contributed to who she has become.

PS. spelling mistake on pg 230. “secretes” instead of “secrets”, pout.

 

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Eternally Faithful

Review: Faithful and Other Stories by Daniel Karasik

I feel slightly cheated. This was my first ARC and I was so excited to read something new. But Karasik has duped me. Each of these stories has been previously published in some way, and often won an award. OK, OK… He hasn’t actually cheated me, but I was a little disappointed to find that these were not new stories. After some counselling, I realise that this gives me the opportunity to do an open review and not worry too much about revealing spoilers… You have been warned.

The title story, ‘Faithful’, is in fact the last and yet I couldn’t help reading each story through the lens of this title. They all seems to question the reader’s assumptions about faithfulness from a different perspective. They each seem to ask; ‘Is this faithfulness? Is this true?’

This collection of seemingly separate and unrelated stories reads as one complex and interwoven narrative with various perspectives. Karasik even brings in recurring names, images and motifs weaving a thread through all the stories. The apple tree where Saul dies in ‘Mine’ appears in the last story when Jake watches his daughter reading poetry. Aaron Gold shows up as a minor character in a later story. These recurrences tie the collection together beautifully, as though he knew every story he was going to write from the beginning.

Religion seems to be an undercurrent in each story as well, especially Judaism. The wife in ‘Mine’ says “no silence can be held indefinitely, except perhaps the silence of God.” The characters that broach the subject of God seem to share this view; that God is silent and passive. Tasia in ‘Sister’ says “You can’t make flowers unless you’re God. Who doesn’t exist. Which means you’re not him.” She is confirming God and denying him all at once.

Later Marina, the sister, tells her “It’s not impossible, Tasia. Of course it is not impossible.” I assume she is pregnant and feels that she has indeed created life. Aaron Gold, in ‘A Much Loved Teacher’, says “thank God” three times in the last paragraph when he realises that his teacher has not been in a terrible accident.

In a collection of stories that questions faithfulness and relationships, this perception of God is a loss for me as I see God as the epitome of faithfulness. I’m not going to guess at Mr. Karasik’s religious beliefs, however, his stories seem to yearn for the divine, for something bigger than this fleeting life. He seems to be reaching for eternity.

Witness’ is possibly my favourite; it is a bizarre and transporting story. The narrator asks “Why live at all?” and then goes on to quote Matthew Arnold saying “Love, let us be true to one another!” He explains his definition of love as “the revelation of something worth our fidelity”. This could be summary of the entire book. What is worth your fidelity? Are you faithful to it?

From the middle it lost me a little. In some cases the stories lacked clarity, perhaps I’m not supposed to know what’s going on. I felt a sense of confusion, especially regarding identity. Often the characters are hiding something or not being honest with themselves. It’s probably the point but this frustrated me.

Faithful’ was a difficult read, longer than necessary and alienating. I didn’t empathise with the Jake. I think he’s a self-centred and childish man. The grown up daughter is rather flat and her religion seems like a trend she has adopted rather than a conviction. Patricia’s mental illness is used to excuse Jake’s terrible behaviour. He abandons his prestigious desk job to become a painter so perhaps it’s a story about being faithful to yourself but I still think he’s an igit.

That having been said, the writing is beautiful throughout this collection and I will make a point of reading anything else by Karasik that finds its way to me.

 

My first ARC!

I’ve been following the online ‘book’ community for a while now and have finally discovered ARCs; Advanced Readers Copies! How have I lived this long with out hearing about these?

So, I got my first ARC. It’s a short story collection by a Canadian author called Daniel Karasik. It is only going to be released in a few months! And I’m reading it now! How brilliant is that?? It’s called Faithful and other Stories. I’m 3 stories in and it is phenomenal.

I’m trying to decide how to review it. Is there any value in doing a YouTube video review or is this format sufficient? I guess in this case I’m going to have to be careful about spoilers, right? That would be baaaad…

The form of a Feather

A Review of Max Porter’s Grief is the thing with feathers

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This slim work has been prodded and pried open from every angle. If you’ve made it here, to this late and lowly review, I must find something new to say about it.

*Please note; SPOILERS AHEAD!

Porter, a publisher by day, is probably the only author who would have been able to pull something like this off. Grief is a novella at best, scrappy, unfinished, often unintelligible and purposefully babbling at the other end. But, for the grieving, it is true and honest. Grief can feel “gack-pack-nack, the whole place heavy with mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief. Down the dead Mum stairs, plinkety plink”.

Trying to tell a story of grief in a regularly structured novel with character arcs and plot types is wholly inauthentic. This jagged, bleak ‘story’ is a mirror for the grieving to look into and feel less alone. It hints at the stages of grief. For example, bargaining. Crow tells the boys to make a fake Mum and he will bring back the Mum that is the “truest”. They eagerly oblige and beg for their Mum to come back, but of course, Crow can’t do it. In the bargaining stage, a person will do or believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, in order to have their loved-one back.

The stages are not clear cut, though. A person sinks and rises through them like a terrible, everlasting roller coaster. That’s enough ‘poor me’, there are experts who can tell you more about the science of grief than an orphan can.

What strikes me about this book is its form. It has so many elements that it defies them all. It is fiction that is part autobiography with a smattering of poetry and some bizarre meta-fiction parts where the reader is forced to make decisions the character (or more accurately, the author) has refused to make.

For example; Dad realises there are things his wife will never use again. But instead of listing them, he offers a short list in brackets for the reader to choose from. This is a ‘writerly’ practice that I’ve come across in my scouring of the Internet for wisdom and tips to becoming a writer myself. In order to keep the momentum going, the writer does not allow specifics to hold them up. Can’t think of the perfect word? List a few in brackets and decide during the editing process. Except he leaves the final decision up to Reader. What did you notice, Reader, that your dead loved one will never use again?

In all the reviews I’ve found, no-one has discussed the Comprehension Questions. What on Earth was that? Is Crow giving a lesson on grief? Who is supposed to answer them? The Reader, I suppose. So, what are your answers? Did I get it right? Who died? I guess this is part of the experience of grief; unanswered questions, confusion and murky impressions of reality.

There are other moments like this, the brothers tell stories that are “partly true”. You can choose which parts are true for yourself. Crow babbles incoherently, you can assign meaning there if and where you choose.

As an aspiring writer myself, I feel that I have found my ideal book, the style and ‘genre’ I want to emulate, the feeling I want the Reader to have when they put the book down. This is the not-novel, I’ve been wishing I could write. Although, it lacks a hint of something beyond what we can see and feel and know… something of eternity. Do you know where you’re going to?

Early in the novella, Porter says, “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” And it is true, grief is not something to hurry or deprive yourself of, it is a pool to dive into clothes and all. Things will never be the same, there is no same, no going back to the way things were, there is a gut-wrenching black whole at the centre and we must find a new normal where we can co-exist with our loss.

Death sucks only for those who are left behind. The dead are not grieving. And this is the point where I think Porter’s book falls just a fraction short. Death is rampant and indiscriminate and, of course, inevitable, so what happens after? Do you know where you’re going to? … Do you like the things that life is showing you? (sorry..) Our only solace for the ridiculous pain in this life can be that there is something after it and someone, a Father, who loves us. If there is only death and nothingness, then it is all futile and nothing/no-one is redeemable. That is too bleak for me, even now as I begin grieving once again, to accept.

“A Big Man’s wife”

The short story format is vastly underrated. If all you have is a couple thousand words at most, you must choose them very carefully in order to create full, believable characters and a satisfying character arc. If I’m to find my way as a writer, it’s important to read ferociously and to think critically about each piece. Yesterday I had the joy of reading Imitation by Chimamanda Adichie. It is a perfect example of how to give the readers a glimpse into the lives of full characters and explore heavy themes with precision and flair.

The story starts with shocking news; Nkem’s husband Obiora has a girlfriend. Over the course of the story we realise that his having a girlfriend is not that shocking, she too had dated married men when she was younger and single. Through this news Nkem’s eyes are opened to who SHE is and where her life choices have led her.

She has married a “big man” and he makes sure she is taken care of. She in turn must keep herself up to his standards. When he is about to arrive, she gets her hair done and has a wax so that she is perfect for him. With the revelation of his extra-marital relations, she impulsively decides to cut off her hair.

Oh boy! This is a well-known act of defiance, a move towards independence, cutting off what is expected of her, literally… Think Britney. So, perhaps not the most original plot point but evocative and effective.

Obiora collects African art (masks and other pieces of cultural significance), however, they are all imitations. As he orates the meaning and purpose of each new piece, he also explains how all the originals were destroyed by the colonialists or are on show in museums around the world. I wonder if she is saying that African culture has been compromised and there is no ‘original’ culture left?

Nkem sees that the life she has built in America is also an imitation and makes a bold decision to start living authentically. At the end of the story I feel Nkem still has a long way to go before she will have achieved authenticity and honesty in her own heart and mind. I appreciate that Adichie doesn’t try to give us all the answers but rather leaves it with the reader to figure out what happens next.

 

What’s in a name?

As an aspiring African writer, I thought it was vital to read as much African literature as I can while on my journey to being published. I’ve read the iconic novels; Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions and even a quick reread of The Heart of Darkness recently, but as for contemporary African lit..? Not much, Death by Carbs, aside.

This book has given me a great hope for African lit and also a rather large pair of shoes to fill. Shoes that I honestly feel totally incapable of filling. I am white. And African. Yes, it is possible. It’s an odd identity to have. So, here goes my ‘white’ review of a book set (partly) in Africa that deals heavily with culture, language and identity…

There’s a lot a person can talk about; Darling’s bizarre childhood, the devastation of racism and political injustices. The pervasiveness of male sexual deviance and the regularity with which young girls must face sexual assault. The American ‘dream’. But, for the sake of this blog I will focus on the use of names to denote culture and identity. Language, after all, is a vehicle for cultural propagation.

The thread that ties the fragmented story together is names, strange and sometimes funny names. Some of the stranger offerings are; Mother of Bones (I think this is a nickname?), Bornfree, Messenger, Godknows, Freedom and, of course, Darling. These names carry the essence of the culture but they are in English.

There are also a few Ndebele names; Tendai (Be Thankful) and Ncane (Little), etc. There is also the ridiculous Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro (he is as heinous as the name suggests) and the stubborn Tshaka Zulu who dies because he cannot surrender his culture or language.

As young children, Darling and her friends play many games that have deep political and social ramifications, however, their play is innocent and perhaps a very naïve. They play “ER” when Chipo (who is 11) is pregnant and they are trying to abort the baby. Sbho says “In order to do this right, we need new names” and they become ‘Dr. Cutter’ and ‘Dr. Bullet’.

After escaping the tragedies of Africa, Darling finds herself in an impossible situation. She can never belong in America. She explains it like this; “Because we were not in our own country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised.” However, she can also never go back, she no longer belongs in Africa either.

The undocumented foreigners stick together mostly and when one’s name become too difficult to pronounce, they become known by their country instead. She feels a comradery with the other foreigners because they also have no place in America. Darling’s family visited very seldom, but when they did she “welcomed them to a home that was not ours”.

The break with her family is painful enough, she lies to them and promises she will come home soon but she can never leave; America is her prison and she “pulls tight the shackles”. The story seems to become allegorical at this point and Darling speaks for all illegal aliens explaining how names will forever shatter the next generation;

“And then our own children were born. We held their American birth certificates tight. We did not name our children after our parents, after ourselves, we feared if we did they would not be able to say their own names, that their friends and teachers would not know how to call them. We gave them names that would make them belong in America, names that did not mean anything to us: Aaron, Josh, Dana, Corey, Jack, Kathleen.” Pg 247

I think this is the crux of the story. She has sacrificed her identity so her children can grow up American but it means that she is forever in limbo, always an alien. Even in death, her ancestors will not welcome her. She says “the spirits will not come running to meet us, and so we will wait and wait and wait- forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries.” We only hear Darling’s full name once (Darling Nonkululeko Nkala) and by then she no longer holds that identity anymore. Nkululeko means “freedom” and Darling is not free!

Darling ceases to have a solid cultural identity. In America, she is an alien and only connects with other aliens. However, when she talks to Chipo, her friend from home, she is told; “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?” The story of the power of names comes full circle in Chipo’s child (who they tried to abort), who is named Darling.

This idea of the power of names to convey culture and identity is furthered by the fact that ‘Noviolet Bulowayo’ in a pseudonym. Her real name is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele and she also moved from Zimbabwe to America as a child… Sound familiar? So, why does she choose to write under a pseudonym? I would like to think she is creating a new story for herself, a new identity and perhaps a new culture.