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.