Four books that rocked my world


Four books that rocked my world

DEBORAH STEINMAIR escapes into her imagination inside the covers of a quartet of extraordinary novels.


IN the past few weeks, I've been running around so much for VWB's book festival that I've read only four books. Each was exceptional and unforgettable in its own right. I always wonder, in awe, how someone pulls it off — to write a book that completely captivates me and takes me to a place where I want to linger long after turning the last page. That's why no TV series can hold my attention — what can compare to images conjured up in the theatre of your imagination by the written word?

The beauty of books

I spent time between the covers of yet another extraordinary, enchanting book, and now I feel bereft — what should I read next?

I am talking about Pip Williams' second book, The Bookbinder of Jericho. Her first novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, had us all scrambling to find words. Bookbinder is set in the same era and region, and once again, the focus is on words, knowledge, and the thirst for learning. Some characters resurface, such as Tilda the beautiful suffragette and Esme, the protagonist in Dictionary.

We find ourselves in London before and during World War 1 . Peggy Jones and her twin sister Maude live on their late mother's houseboat, Calliope. The suburb is Jericho. They work as bookbinders, like their mother did: they fold and bind the folios by hand, stitch them together, glue the spine, and affix the leather cover. The title is embossed and gilded.

Like Esme, Peggy is incurably curious and eager to learn. She speed-reads snippets of the pages that pass through her hands, and sometimes, when something is folded incorrectly or a corner is torn, she takes part of a book home. The houseboat is a library. She would have liked to go to Oxford, but there is no money, and she feels she has to look after Maude, who is differently wired, with special needs. Women, after all, could not obtain a degree; they could merely read a field of study.

The reader is drawn in completely. The horror of war — landscapes filled with dead boys and halls filled with maimed young men — is depicted in an unforgettable manner. The mud, sweat, blood and excrement. Mothers who will never recover. Potential spilt like milk. Shattered psyches and a hunger for love and tenderness. Peggy cares for a Flemish soldier with half a face, and they become attached to each other.

I won't tell the story. You must experience it: feel, smell, taste and roll it around in your mouth. It's one of the most delightful of books, finer than Belgian chocolate.

Welcome to dystopia

I haven't read young adult fiction in a long time, but after hearing Elrien Scheepers talk about it in Clarens, I decided to pick up her novel Waar jakkalse huil. It's dystopian and ominous.

The government has been taken over by Genmods, genetically modified individuals who have no sympathy for humans. The main character, Laela Nix, had her parents wiped out by military drones, right on their doorstep. The reader later learns why. Now she's on her way to her uncle in Stellenbosch with a cryo-capsule containing the last honeybee semen. She rolls her ancient Jeep and ends up in a house with three young people (are they even humans?) running an insect farm.

This is after the Great Famine that wiped out thousands of people. The climate has gone haywire. Water is scarce. People eat worm meal. They travel in pods. The government is determined to load people's memories onto hard drives so consciousness can live forever. People are collateral damage; they are tortured and eliminated. Laela's adopted sister, Jesse, has made her life unbearable since childhood. She is a Genmod and is  searching for Laela, who fortunately doesn't have a microchip in her neck.

It's unbearably thrilling because you become invested in the characters. Scheepers succeeds in breathing life into them. It reminded me once again that youth fiction is not merely for the young. An atmospheric and captivating reading experience.

The fervour of youth

I also don't read enough local English books. In Clarens, I met Lucinda Hooley and had a conversation about the book she wrote with Daisy Jones, a friend from school days: Love You Madly. The idea arose from letters they sent to each other in the days when we still wrote and posted letters. Passionate, humorous writings that bring to life the fervour of youth and a certain window in time, the nineties in Cape Town and Johannesburg. According to Lucinda, they didn't want to tell their own stories and upset old lovers. Then they came up with the brilliant idea of using the storyline of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

The main characters are two sisters, Mare and Mielie (Amelia). Initially, Lucinda wrote Mielie's letters and Daisy wrote Mare's, but later they overlapped, to the extent that today they can hardly remember who wrote what. Publishers believed a novel composed of letters would not find readers, so they wrote connecting text from the perspective of an omniscient narrator.

If, like me, you were in Yeoville in the late eighties or nineties, you will recognise the vibe, the vibrant pulse of optimism, the possibility of a new era where race no longer mattered. It was before the unfortunate decline. It's a delightful book that I highly recommend.

Noir at its darkest

No one on earth can write noir like the Scandinavians. Is it because of the weather? The interminable darkness, the inhospitable landscape, often below freezing point? Their crime rates are said to be low but they have a number of talented crime writers. Camilla Läckberg has flexed her storytelling muscles with no fewer than 13 gripping thrillers. She co-wrote The Cult with Henrik Fexeus. It's a doorstopper of a book (585 pages) that will have your eyes glued to the pages.

A toddler is abducted from a playground. Some of the children say the perpetrator was a woman. The boy is not the first to be kidnapped. Certain characters have appeared in previous books. Detective Mina Dabiri, in particular, resonates. She has a germ phobia and various compulsions. She wipes down the exercise equipment in the gym so thoroughly with wet wipes that people mistake her for a cleaner. Her interpersonal relationships are troubled, but there is someone she trusts, someone who sees and understands her — the magician Vincent, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything on Earth and loves to share it, saying things like: “Stars are really just atom factories … At their very heart, where they’re warmest, is where the building blocks for the rest of the universe are made. These atoms are hurled into space and end up all over the place. Such as here, on Earth. Everything you see around you — all the people and objects — are made from thousands, perhaps millions, of stars."

It becomes clear that there is a ruthless cult at the heart of the abductions and that Mina is being targeted. She must protect her daughter, who is not aware of her mother's existence. As always, it's the characters that keep me reading, and the offbeat friendships and imperfect loves. There are villains who make you shudder and damaged law enforcement officers who must unravel the mysteries. It's an unputdownable journey through Sweden and the human psyche.

Who, what, where, and how much?

The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams was published by Penguin Random House and costs R288 at Graffiti.

Waar jakkalse huil by Elrien Scheepers was published by Tafelberg and costs R220 at Graffiti.

Love You Madly by Daisy Jones and Lucinda Hooley was published by The Language Laundry and costs $12.99 at Amazon.

The Cult by Camilla Läckberg and Henrik Fexeus was published by HarperCollins and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

The Neverending Story by Yimahl.

♦ VWB ♦

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