Heart and horror


Heart and horror

DEBORAH STEINMAIR was engrossed in a drama about old friends and a horrific thriller.


TODAY, I'm writing about two books that have only two things in common: their authors' bestseller status and Covid making an appearance in both.

Marita van der Vyver burst onto the scene in 1992 with Griet skryf 'n sprokie (Entertaining Angels), which garnered numerous awards and has been translated into many languages. It was groundbreaking in Afrikaans and inspired many of us to write.

She is an icon: smart, well-read, tall, slim and friendly. She lives in France, but her ties to South Africa and Afrikaans are strong, and she frequently shows up here. Her latest book is delivered at my gate early in the morning, and by evening I am turning the last page. Such a day with Marita is truly an escape, refreshing and captivating.

We are in a beach house on the West Coast, on Duncan and Mona's property, where Mona's parents, Adriaan and Yvette, also have a house. Adriaan and Yvette are at the centre of the circle of friends we got to know in Wegkomkans (Breathing Space), published in 1999. He is a painter: a tall, dynamic extrovert who used to be a skirt-chaser. It's Friday the 13th, and their friends are arriving from all over, even the US and Belgium, for a reunion weekend, 25 years later. It's been so long since we've read Wegkomkans that we gratefully flip back to the “who's who" at the beginning of the book.

Yvette, Liane and Emma once lived together in a student house. Emma, a young journalist, became friends with Mila, an older woman with a long, slender neck, with whom Adriaan (married) had an affair. With whom Ralph might still be in love.

Emma now lives in France with her daughter, Sasha. Hmmm, wonders the curious reader who wants to sniff out autofiction everywhere; journalist/writer living in France? Of course, the circle of friends is probably a conglomerate of the writer and her friends, thrown together, each with a pinch of this one and a dash of that one. Now everyone's children have grown up, and grandchildren have come along, so it's a fairly sizable cast to keep up with.

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Such a group of old acquaintances (who have meanwhile been through the mill), exes that have become friends, friends that have become family, pheromones swirling between the lines — it's a recipe for drama. Throughout the weekend, at least three shadows loom: Yvette's terminal cancer, which they'd rather not tell their friends about just yet; the threat of Covid and its creeping restrictions; and the inevitable reality of approaching death for friends in their sixties and seventies.

Such parties can be exhausting when you're no longer young, and the friends have to pace themselves. As you might expect, a few rusty secrets are revealed, an argument or two flares up, an old friend or two find each other between the sheets. The conversation revolves around growing old, sex, disillusionment almost 30 years into the new era, and not a bucket list so much as a list of the things they never want to do again.

Like Emma, the writer in the book, Marita is a listener, ear finely tuned to dialogue. The conversations and the inner dialogue of the characters, old and very young, are authentic. The children wear earphones and their eyes are glued to screens, but in the end they have the same issues and longings as their parents and grandparents: to be accepted, to fit in, to be desired, to form meaningful relationships. To be good people.

The group of friends comes to the conclusion that their purpose is to be kind. That is the most we can all aim for, I think.

It's genuine, moving, and the concentrate of a lived life. I had a ball until the sun set over the sea, the sunset that according to a character is a cliché, sentimental and unpaintable.

The second book is Stephen King's latest, Holly. So far, I've mostly avoided King's books because horror is a genre I struggle with. I have seen a few movies, such as It and Mercy. King fascinates me; he can write exceptionally well and has grown into his appearance: as a student, he looked like a manic Eskimo.

Now, my friend Mareli tells me, his novellas are truly exceptional. I'm going to get my hands on them. One of them is the basis for The Shawshank Redemption, and most have been adapted into films.

Holly was a guest character in another story, but she captivated her creator, King, so much that she now has her own book. She's not a detective but a private eye with her own company, Finders Keepers. She's delightfully eccentric and quirky with unique methods and thought patterns. The mother of a girl who has disappeared comes to her for help. It's a problematic time: Holly's business partner has Covid and her mother, with whom she had an extremely complicated relationship, recently died. But once Holly gets her teeth into something, she doesn't let go.

It's a college town in the Midwest, and there have already been a few mysterious disappearances. The villains (the reader knows this from early on, so I'm not spoiling anyone's fun) are the Harrises, a respectable couple, two retired professors in their eighties obsessed with health and longevity. They kidnap young people, keep them in a cage, activate their livers by feeding them raw calf's liver,  then butcher and devour them with relish, especially the liver and the brain.

Someone on the back cover describes the book as “Creepy as hell, but with heart." Exactly. I struggle with the creepiness; I had nightmares and sometimes felt soiled and polluted. It's also a hefty book. The “heart" resonated with me: there's a story within a story. Holly is friends with two slightly younger people, the brother and sister Jerome and Barbara. Both want to write. Barbara has just finished school, and all she wants to do is write poetry. Olive, a famous poet who is 99 years old, gruff and fond of cursing and swearing, becomes her mentor. A strong bond forms between them. Their conversations about poetry, about why they want to write poems, are particularly insightful. Barbara has talent; King quotes a few lines of her poetry, and it hits you on the side of the head, which is not usually the case when a novelist quotes a character's poetry. Will King publish a poetry collection next?

I wanted to throw the book aside a few times with a: no, goodness, yuck! But I stuck to it because you want to know how Holly is going to outsmart the gruesome old people. It's extremely suspenseful.

I wish I could cut out Barbara and Olive's story and release it as a novella. But then, of course, you'd be cutting the heart out of the horror.

Who, what, where and how much?

Laaste Kans by Marita van der Vyver was published by Tafelberg and costs R264 at Graffiti.

Holly by Stephen King was published by Hodder & Stoughton and costs R332 at Graffiti.

What are we listening to?

Adele sings “Hello"

♦ VWB ♦

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