Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Spiral House by Claire Robertson | A New Exciting South African Voice


Journalist Claire Robertson's fictional debut comes in the form of the beautiful novel The Spiral House. With ecchoes of Olive Schreiner and J M Coetzee, Robertson is ambitious in her first attempt – and successful! Although I struggled with the archaic language and style of writing in the beginning of the book, I was sold to the story and determined to finish it. I eventually got so enraptured in it that I could not put it down.

The book is made up of two parallel stories. The first story is set at the end of the 1700s and follows Katrijn van der Caab, a freed slave now working as a wig-maker's apprentice. The story begins as Le Voir and Trijn go to assist a client on the farm Vogelzang. The daughter of the house has shamefully lost her hair, and Le Voir begins the slow work of making the perfect wig for her, while Trijn joins the kitchen slaves in their chores. On Vogelzang, which I believe means “birdsong”, the mistress of the house is losing her mind, and only wants the company of her caged birds. The master of the house fills his time with race classification and experiements, and soon builds a bird cage of his own, the spiral house.

The other story is set in 1961 at a time when apartheid legislation was being enforced in South Africa. We follow the nun Vergilius who practically raised the black teenager Jacob. Her big hope for him is the change of getting an education in Rome, but her letters seem not to reach their destination. Vergilius has a streak of rebellion in her, and the only thing keeping her at the convent is Jacob. But with the arrival of a group of American travellers, things start to change for Vergilius.

Both Trijn and Vergilius are in situations they have chosen to be, but where they are not truly free. Trijn might be a free woman, but she does the same work as the slaves at Vogelzang, and she is powerless in the face of the white people who run the farm. This becomes clear when the young mistress accuses Trijn of stealing, and Le Voir believes her. Trijn realises that she is guilty because her word against the mistress is worthless. Simillary, Vergilius' convent life consists of strict routine where her every move is watched or heard. Her letters are read before being sent out, and in this matter Vergilius literally feels the censorship of the apartheid era (but in a religious context).

Trijn has always been conscious of her freedom, and what brings on a change for her is circumstances at Vogelzang that she cannot ignore. The master's spiral house holds a horrifying secret only Trijn has discovered, and she decides that she is the only one who can do something to stop it. She doesn't even fully disclose her secret to her romantic interest. For Vergilius, on the other hand, the shift comes with the Americans. While the rest of the South African population is clamping down, through censorship, banning, physical intimidation, and legislation, Vergilius actually comes out of her shell and decides to liberate herself. And we learn that she is reading a book about a Trijn van der Caab while she's doing it.

There is a lot of symbolism in this book. The Vogelzang birds and their mad mistress expressing censorship and imprisonment. Sex and virginity expressed through how certain insects can get pregnant without a male. The loss of hair as a symbol of lost innocence and possible promiscuity. And as a backdrop the South African society that classifies you as less based on your skin colour. While both stories are set in really dark periods of South African history, they are full of hope.

Claire Robertson, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Oh, and I cannot get enough of Joey Hi-Fi's cover designs. Once again he has me pouring over his design to appreciate the beauty and thoughtfulness that went into it. [He also made the cover design for Lauren Beukes' Zoo City and the new edition of Moxyland].

Monday, 18 February 2013

Wool by Hugh Howey | Sci-fi Thriller from the Deep Down

If the lies don't kill you the truth will” is the cover blurb for Wool, and it couldn't be more accurate. Howey's written a dark dystopia where mankind has lived in a (?) silo underground for times unknown. The cameras surveying the outside shows dead and barren grounds with grey skies and no life. And those who express a wish to venture out into the toxic outside, gets their wish – their last wish. To keep order, anyone overly interested in the outside are sent to “cleaning”, which is basically a death sentence. But they somehow dutifully perform the task of cleaning the camera lenses before crashing dead to the ground.

In the beginning of the novel we follow two people from the “up top”, the silo's sheriff, and then the mayor. The silo spirals down down down from level 1, past the powerful IT on level 30, all the way to mechanics on level 140. Here lives Juliette, who one day finds her life literally turned upside down when she is headhunted for the position of sheriff for the silo. But once she accepts the job, Juliette finds herself in a power struggle with Bernard, head of IT. As people around her start dying one by one, it becomes clear that Juliette has become tangled up in something much much deeper than she could ever imagine.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, so I'm stopping my plot account here. What I really loved about the novel was how it kept twisting and turning. You literally never knew what was around the next corner. As mentioned above, we initially follow two other people, and we think the story will evolve around them, but then it changes completely. The mysteries of the book, and the silo, are revealed little by little, always to horrifying effect. Howey kept surprising me over and over. We learn the truths alongside our protagonists, and as a thriller the novel works really well. Howey excells at building tension and is a master at revealing the secrets morsel by morsel.

I haven't read sci-fi in a long time, so maybe I'm wrong, but Howey is also unusual in having a kick-ass female hero. Juliette is the Chuck Norris of heroines. Having worked as a mechanic for years and years, she can deal with pretty much any practical problem, and she surprisingly also has brains and beauty to boot. Juliette doesn't sit down and cry, waiting to be rescued. Juliette does the rescuing. So awesome.

The title is also quite fun. Wool as a symbol refers to a range of things in the novel, but the most important one comes from the saying “pulling the wool over their eyes”. Without revealing anything, I'll stick to saying that most of the people in the silo are being kept in the dark about pretty much everything. Another wool motif is the wool the cleaners use to clean the camera lenses. The whole ceremony of cleaning is also another way of pulling the wool over the people's eyes.

We also have a direct example of someone knitting: “After much deliberation, Mayor Jahns selected a pair of needles. She always chose carefully, for proper gauge was critical. Too small a needle, and the knitting would prove difficult, the resulting sweater too tight and constricting. Too large a needle, on the other hand, would create a garment full of large holes. The knitting would remain loose. One would be able to see straight through it.” (p. 45). I think this passage reveals a lot about the silo and the fine balance the people in power are walking. It also suggests a great deal about the story as a whole, but it makes more sense after reading the book.

The first half of the book is definitely the strongest. Some passages feel dragged out and unnecessarily detailed in the latter part. There are still shocking revelations, and I have to admit I wasn't able to predict the end, so it's still really worth reading. After finishing the book I read the interview with Howey in the back of the book and learned that Wool is the first book in a trilogy. The second book Shift is already available, and the preview at the back of the book made me quite curious to find out more. It's seems like Howey is ready to thicken the plot even further and make the dystopia a notch darker. Bring it!