Shipwrecks and ancient apparitions


Shipwrecks and ancient apparitions

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH tests the water and invites us to come for a swim in a shoal of new books.


Sometimes all you need is a little luck. During the week in which the Cape was hit by storms, I found myself in a hospital waiting room with a lot of time on my hands. I'd been looking for “something different" to read, a quest that has often landed me with books of which I had to put down after enduring only 20 pages.

My choice this time was The Wager, from David Grann. The reason? Grann was the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a book Martin Scorsese chose to make into a movie. True crime. Grann is a fact-finder.

Shipwreck and stories

The Wager really is something completely different. The subtitle is “A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder" and it is set in the mid-18th century. The Wager is a British man-of-war, a ship that was part of the British navy during a conflict with Spain.

At one stage, The Wager chases a Spanish ship that has a cargo of silver on board, but in a stormy sea off Patagonia its voyage ends on the rocks of a deserted island. What  Grann then tells is a story of shipwrecked people, class differences in their ranks, the inevitable mutiny and the unhurried aftermath.

It's the first time in a while I've had the chance to read a book in one sitting, even though it kept me going well into the night. The Wager is a vivid read. The trials at sea, and later ashore, are so strikingly expressed that I kept conjuring up images days after reading.

Ultimately, another aspect continues to haunt me: the way the people who took the British imperial aspirations to all corners of the earth lived and lied. They weren't always people a monarch could be proud of, even if they were the ones who got the dirty work done with bloodshed and tremendous sacrifice. And who kept the royal treasure chests filled.

The poet Byron's grandfather was a crew member on The Wager, and he survived. John Duck, a black sailor, was less fortunate: he was captured by the Spanish near Buenos Aires and sold as a slave. Numerous colourful figures populate the savage world of this book. Everyone is given a chance, more than two centuries after the events, to make their case.

And that's the ultimate great treat of The Wager — Grann leaves it up to his readers to decide who was telling the truth.

The Wager by David Grann was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R560 at Exclusive Books.



While Covid remains on our mind, it is no longer a major danger. Simon Schama adds a bit of sober hindsight to this. To read Foreign Bodies is to regain your trust in humanity while also wholeheartedly agreeing with Schama that humanity can become immensely stupid when a pandemic hits. The starting point is scientific breakthroughs in the 18th and 19th centuries during the smallpox outbreak in London, cholera in Paris and bubonic plague in India. Schama writes about the ways in which medical scientists offered the greatest resistance to people who eventually made the breakthroughs against the diseases. Schama is a historian with a popular approach — his annexures alone are filled with staggering and easy-to-understand information. That touch of humour he can so subtly bring in is beautifully visible in his introduction: “What follows are scenes from this late-period episode of the human comedy."

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R475 at Exclusive Books.

Philosophy vs Life

Some things you learn at university don't make sense until much later in life. When I started reading this book after The Wager, I immediately thought of the first lectures by Prof JJ Degenaar and Dr André du Toit that I  experienced back in the day. Sarah Viren had a similar experience with her philosophy professor, who taught her to question everything according to the Socratic method — just as Degenaar and Du Toit did with many generations of Maties. When, while writing her memoir, she is suddenly confronted with a personal crisis (her wife is charged with sexual misconduct), she finds that her philosophy mentor has armed her to deal with it in an enriching way, but that he is unwilling to take responsibility for her life's tragedy. I had never heard of Viren before; now I have only admiration for her. I also think back on Degenaar and Du Toit with compassion.

To Name the Bigger Lie: A Memoir in Two Stories by Sarah Viren was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R628 at Exclusive Books.

Racial hatred

I wrote earlier this year about S.A. Cosby's My Darkest Prayer, an outstanding novel. His latest, All the Sinners Bleed, renders me a total fan. The backdrop is a small town in Virginia, modelled on the rural American racist model, with predominantly white residents. Titus Crown is its first black sheriff. The trigger is a shooting at a school, which makes Crown aware of all the black children who have disappeared in the area. Racial hatred complicates Crown's work, but that's not what makes this story so good. Titus Crown is an excellent detective, and that's what I'm looking for. He gets answers.

All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby was published by Headline Publishing Group and costs R565 at Exclusive Books

Ancient apparitions

The arrival of a new novel by Lorrie Moore caused as much excitement in the book industry as the publication of Cormac Mcarthy's last two novels. There seems to be no doubt that this is going to be the literary event of the year. Exactly what it's about, I haven't really been able to figure out yet — it's safer to simply say it's a ghost story set simultaneously in a few centuries. All I know for sure is that it has a beautiful cover.

I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore was published by Faber & Faber and costs R367 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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