Monday, February 24, 2014

South Africa re-visited through books

While my own book goes off to find its way in the early days of its release into the world, I've been reading some other lovely books, two of which have left a very deep impression on me. Interestingly, they come from the same 'nest' in that one book was written by the lovely Lynn Moorhouse, a wonderful Twitter friend now, and the other comes from her husband Earl.

I read Lynn's book first: the haunting and poignant Aunt Coco and the Marionette Man. This is the first half of my Amazon review:

"If I could give this book a sixth star I would. I didn't just love it. I absolutely adored it. It is just stunning. I will admit up front it has evoked all my feelings and memories of South Africa and its wonderful eclectic population. As a result, it has extra meaning for me personally. I could smell the baked African earth Lynn Moorhouse describes as it soaks up the first spring rain, feel the breeze rustling through Pretoria's famous Jacaranda trees, see the vivid canopy of its mauve blossom and hear the sound of the rain on the tin roof. All rich, vital sensory memories that overwhelmed me in waves of nostalgia.

But even without that, it is a beautifully written and finely crafted novel. It is also refreshingly different in style and approach. I love the way the story of Aunt Coco and her Marionette man emerges through different strands. We have the present day Elle dealing with widowhood when a friendship from her South African childhood with strong mutual connections from the past revives her - that and the re-discovered photos she took in her past life with an old Brownie camera. Then there are the letters from Aunt Coco, reminiscing about elements from her own past in South Africa and the conflicts emerging from what was then inappropriate friendships. And finally, we have Elle as a child experiencing the changes and tensions that affect her more than liberal family at a time when to even socialise with someone of colour could result in a prison terms."

As you can tell from what I have written, I really loved it for its finely crafted story, but also because it brought back so many memories and sensations of South Africa, a country whose sights, smells and sounds remain deeply embedded in my being and whose people are still, for me, the most vivid and hospitable souls I have yet to meet.

And so I was already there in spirit when I picked up Earl Moorhouse's Last Summer in Little England, another story set in South Africa, but this time told from the perspective of a little boy, in fact a little Earl, although I imagine some of the story must be fiction. Nevertheless, he writes of Little England, being the coastal town, Port Shepstone, in what was then the very English Natal - the last outpost of the British Empire as I remember people calling it when I lived there. Here is my review of Earl's book

"Goodness, I so enjoyed this book. Even though it's written from the perspective of a small boy, it is riveting reading. It's a bit like following the script of a nineteen fifties film. The only emotion in the book is observed and experienced by the narrator - a small boy, so it is a very special way of viewing things. His friend, Elliot, the Zulu handyman around the house, the Afrikaans girls and their mother next door, the old man who is building his boat: these are all character gems. The world in which they live is contained, a 'little England',  but the threat of apartheid South Africa is moving in and you feel it throughout the book, especially in the violent outbursts of the 'stepfather', a figure who never has a name, but who is an erratic and often fearsome presence, damaged by both war and the anxiety of losing his job to Afrikaners. This is one of those special books about South Africa's darker days that remain with you. It is poignant, touching and rather sad, but at the same time, it is funny and quirky and typically South African. Thank you, Earl Moorhouse, for a very special read. I wish I could have a paperback of this as I'd cherish it along with Aunt Coco and the Marionette Man." 

These two books have held me riveted to every page. They tell stories of life and love, often in a very humorous and candid way, but they both leave the reader in no doubt about the menacing cloud that was apartheid. They are books that reflect the underlying fears of the period disguised beneath a veneer of normality. As novels they are literary gems; as historical reflections they are important in evoking an accurate picture of what it was really like to live in South Africa at the beginning of the Apartheid period. Many many South Africans felt the cloud approaching but were helpless to stop it. Lynn and Earl have both captured that feeling in two very different, but wonderful books. For anyone who is interested in or knows South Africa both past and present, I can highly recommend them.


  1. Both these books sound really interesting, Val, and I can imagine how drawn you must be to experience South Africa once again via their pages. I'll note them down, and look out for them myself.

  2. I am hooked and like Patricia I will seek out these books. I finished Harbour Ways yesterday and absolutely loved it. I do so admire you and the way that you do everything yourself. You certainly are willing to tackle more than I would even think about. It is a very fitting sequel to Watery Ways and I have already recommended it to a couple of people (they are not getting my copy!) xxx

  3. Patricia, do try these two. They are lovely, lovely books and I think that as an Australian, you will also recognise some of the feeling about being in an English speaking country so far from the roots.

    Aww, Fran!!! Thank you soooo much!! I am thrilled you like Harbour Ways. You've made my day!! Can I quote you on Amazon? :-) Yes, do read these two if you get the chance. I loved them. They are really different, so you wouldn't have any sense to sameness. xxxx

  4. Val, these look fab! And great reviews, too.

    And how are things going with your Harbour Ways?

  5. Thank you, Jo! Harbour Ways is out on its own now. I hope it will find its own berth in the book world in time :-)

  6. Of course you can quote me. I will also put a review on there xxx

  7. Thank you so much, Fran! I am still over the moon about what you have said xxx

  8. I'm so happy for you to have found two such perfect books! Sometimes it's hard to find even one great book, much less two. Congrats.

  9. These must have been particulary interesting books for you to read Val given that South Africa is in your blood now. I really want to read them and if I find a lull in my books I certainly will.Great reviews.

  10. "If I could give this book a sixth star I would. I didn't just love it. I absolutely adored it." Oh, wow, if someone gave me a review like this I would be over the moon! The books do sound great, and I will look out for them.

  11. Carol, thank you. For me, I suppose it's as Anne says: South Africa is in my blood, so both books had meaning for me.

    Anne, yes! And yes again! I know how many books there are on your pile, but one day. I think you would certainly enjoy Lynn's!

    Jenny, I'm guessing she was quite happy with that review :-)


Apologies for switching on comment moderation, but this is to make sure everyone can comment without jumping through captcha hoops!

However, anonymous comments will not be published, so please would you sign your name. Even if you leave a nice, relevant comment, I won't publish it without a name.