Monday, 29 April 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes | Time-travelling darkness

I was really excited to read Lauren Beukes’ latest novel The Shining Girls, not just because I enjoyed her previous novels Moxyland and Zoo City, but also because she’s moved her writing in a new direction. Her previous novels were dark dystopias set in respectively Cape Town and Joburg. Amongst South African writers, Beukes’ is a breath of fresh air, an author who doesn’t feel the need to be so political all the time (not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing). In The Shining Girls Beukes moves the setting to Chicago, and it is more crime fiction than sci-fi, although the time-travelling element does give it an undeniable hint of the fantastic.

So we have Harper, a time-travelling murderer originating in the 1930s. After stumbling upon the House, Harper goes on a killing spree stretching decades. His ability to travel in time makes him the perfect serial killer. Apart from his victims’ severed bodies, he only leaves behind tokens, impossible signs that he was there. Harper’s victims are shining girls. Their inner light is so bright he just wants to extinguish it. One of the shining girls is Kirby. Her light might just be too bright for Harper to handle.

Kirby is the shining girl who didn’t die. After the police failed to find her killer, Kirby decides to take matters into her own hands. We meet her in 1993 when she interns at the Chicago newspaper the Sun-Times. Under cover of interning in the sports department, Kirby at turns flatter, at turns threaten, to get access to files and clippings on murders similar to her own attempted murder. With the help of her boss Dan, Kirby starts to get closer and closer to an impossible answer.

The story jumps back and forth in time. We follow Harper as he visits his victims as little girls, giving them a token to hold into until he comes back for them, and then eventually as he goes back to finish the job as the girls have become young women. We also follow Harper as he goes about his life in 1932, trying to build a sort of relationship with a not so innocent nurse. It’s interesting how differently the girls respond to Harper’s presence; some with fear and trepidation, others with joy and anticipation. –Until they realise what he’s there for, that is. Similarly, Harper also feels differently towards the girls. One of the girls and Harper have this magnetic connection, almost as if they were meant to be lovers. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work out.

One of the things I really enjoy about Lauren Beukes’ writing is that it’s so scenic. I can pretty much see it as a movie (and it would be totally awesome!). The jumping in time would translate so well on screen. I know I would like to see the gritty Chicago setting of 1932 contrasting (?) the grungy 90s setting. Hopefully Nick Cave would make the soundtrack.

The only drawback for me personally, was that I wanted the story to be scarier. With the jumping in time, it might be that since I already knew x amounts of girls would die in a really horrible way, but that Kirby had (already) survived her dreadful murder attempt, it didn’t have the same build-up of tension and fear. That said, I went for a night time jog after finishing the book inside the estate I’m on. We’re talking fences all the way around, and me on a pathway only partly lit. The fences mean that only residents of the estate and their guests have access to the area. That didn’t stop me from running faster than ever, never daring to look behind me in case a tree suddenly looked like a man (with a knife), and that two birds mating by the pond startled me out of my skin.

The Shining Girls is a really enjoyable piece of sci-fi crime/ crime sci-fi (whichever sounds best). I would like to peek inside Beukes’ head, but to be honest I’d be too scared to. The Shining Girls is Beukes’ best book to date in my opinion, so now I’m excited to see what more she has up her sleeve. Umuzi’s marketing efforts have so far proven successful. The book is selling really well (in my shop it went straight to #1 in a week), so I just hope my South African customers (who haven’t read her earlier works) realise that South African literature is about so much more than what they’ve seen so far.

To get the full darkness of The Shining Girls be sure to play Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Murder Ballads” while reading. But whatever you do, read the book. Just read it. Now.

This Magnificent Desolation | Magnificent irrevocable destiny

The cover design. The blurb by Colum McCann. There was no way I was not reading this book. And sometimes that kind of prejudice will lead you into a piece of literary heaven. 
It is rare to read as deeply moving a novel as this. Some books just give you a certain feeling. Even though the book might be heartbreaking, the feeling it gives you is not a bad one. I liked being in the book, being a part of the events. The language so poetic, so grand, I just wanted to reread the sentences over and over.

Aged ten, Duncan “wakes” to life, with no recollection of his life spent at the catholic orphanage in the Mid-West. His insomniac nights are spent freezing next to the fireplace in the company of Father Tobin, or curled up frozen on his bed with the static of a broken radio to console him. Through the static Duncan hears the voices of the astronauts who he believes never made it back to earth. Along with his father, mother and the angels, they’re all there in heaven.

When Duncan’s mother Maggie comes to reclaim him, Duncan’s world is turned upside down. As his only memento of the orphanage, Duncan brings the broken radio along to his new life in the San Francisco sun. His mother tells him that she only left him at the orphanage when he was six, and she’s surprised he doesn’t remember his childhood with her. The pictures in her room trigger no recollection in Duncan. As Duncan settles into his new life, the blank where his father should have been eats at him. But his mother refuses to tell him who, or where, his father is. 
Maggie has heartbreaks of her own. She works at the cancer ward, seeing dying patients every day. One night a week she sings at the local pub, with a voice that was once the best voice of her generation, but is now all but gone. Often a bottle accompanies her to bed, sometimes alongside her childhood friend Joshua, a Vietnam war veteran with his own demons.
Duncan loves Joshua, even though Maggie tells him Joshua was never the same after the war. Joshua sees angels and indulges Duncan’s ideas about the dead astronauts. In his mothers’ absence, Joshua becomes a pillar in Duncan’s life, and for a while the threesome play at being a happy family. 
Imagination and stories are important motifs in the novel. Father Tobin tells Duncan “a” story of how Duncan came to the orphanage. For lack of the “real” story, he tells him “a” story. And Duncan reflects: “…then there are words, the rounded, fluid, liquid feel of them pouring from his mouth and creating something out of nothing – he trusts in their precision and in the objects they create. He trusts in their imperviousness, and, once uttered, their irrevocable destiny” (p.22). Duncan often sees things he cannot possibly see – the astronauts, his mother’s face in the moon, Joshua in the tunnels where he works. As a parallel, Joshua’s angel spotting seem to suggest that this is a coping mechanism, but one which might not necessarily healthy.

Echoing Buzz Aldrin’s words and then book Magnificent Desolation, some of the themes in the novel are already hinted at in the title. Duncan is obsessed with the moon landing. He seems to connect the absence of his father to the idea that Buzz Aldrin and Armstrong never returned to earth. And there is a sense that he himself can never return “home” to the orphanage.

This is a novel about grief, loneliness, hopelessness. About magnificent desolation. In the course of reading the novel we get to experience the landscape of that desolation, which stretches on and on and on. And Duncan cannot change it.

This Magnificent Desolation is truly poetic, truly grand, truly magnificent. And absolutely heartbreaking, as one of my customers said.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Want want want! Signed and limited hardcover ed of Lauren Beukes' "The Shining Girls"

Lauren Beukes' latest novel, the time-travelling The Shining Girls just came out. It is also published as a limited ed hardcover, numbered and signed by the author. This is #999 of 1000 copies. I want it so badly!
Will definitely read it soon anyway (currently #3 on my to-read list), so watch this space for a review. I'm excited!

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Night Rainbow by Claire King | The most beautiful book of the year?

Omg omg omg. This book is a treasure. This is the book that I'll recommend to anyone and everyone this year. A small shining literary pearl, The Night Rainbow is simply so beautiful, so sad and so warming that you want to keep it in your heart forever.

The prose is deceptively simple, as the story is told by Pea who is 5 and a half. She and her 4-years-old sister Margot try to make a life for themselves in the aftermath of Papa's death, and their pregnant Maman grieving him and a child she recently lost. In the French summer, the two girls run wild, while Maman is too busy lying down, tending to her own grief to worry about food and clothes for her living children. Pea and Margot's big project is finding a way of making Maman happy again. But she rarely notices their efforts.

Pea might be all but invisible to Maman, but Claude, a man who lives in the neighbourhood sees her and makes small efforts to make Pea's life a little bit better. He brings her cookies, builds her a "girl nest" and plays with her and Margot alongside his dog. But Claude has a past of his own that haunts him, and not everyone finds it appropriate for Claude to spend time with little girls.

Using a child narrator reminds me of Emma Donoghue's Room which was also splendid. But Pea's narrative voice is just so beautiful and poetic, you want to read really slowly and savor the words. It is very hard to even try do this novel justice. It is pure and unadulterated beauty. You have to read it. Here are some quotes just to give you an idea:

Pea on missing hugs: "When Papa was at home things were still OK. He hugged Maman all the time and there were girl-shaped spaces in between their elbows and tummies that I could squeeze into and join in the cuddle."

Pea on Maman's fragile happiness: "I pass [the jam] over, carefully, frightened of breaking her smile."

Pea on blow kisses: "A blown kiss is not a proper kiss. Hugs and kisses should be hugs and kisses, not breaths of air. I am tired of breaths of air and not enough hugs and kisses."

Pea on Claude: "Before the doorbell rings I hear the footsteps, a broken heartbeat on the paving stones, and I know that Claude is here."

Pea is wiser than her years. Her narrative attests to an understanding way beyond words spoken. Between the two of them, Margot is the clever and the brave one, but when Pea is with her, she is also brave. Whenever Claude or anyone else is around, Margot fades into the background.

The novel deals with big themes of grief, love and death. It is so powerful to see these themes through a child's eyes, to try to make sense of all these complex emotions through the seeming simplicity of a child's brain. I think Pea truly has a message that adults can learn from, and every reader will take something different back from reading it.

The Night Rainbow is a breath of fresh air. The cover works perfectly with the book, and once I understood a bit more of what was going on, it made even more sense. I want to keep this book in my heart forever. Pea will certainly stay with me. I hope you take the time out to get to know her also.