LAST week, one of those things happened that makes a life with books so miraculously worthwhile.
Eben Venter handed me Claire Keegan's novel Foster and I started reading it, as you do when you yearn for enlightenment, even when you know you actually don't have time to read the book right away, though it has only 96 pages. And here I am, completely convinced that this Irish woman, Keegan, is one of the greatest writers of our time.
Child, shipped off
Anyone who has ever worked with words and tried to weave a fabrication sentence by sentence will know, upon reading Keegan's prose, that she is one of the greatest. Her use of language is economical, concise. She has an admirable ability to sketch a simple scenario and suggest entirely different stories through sentence and implication.
Foster is about a child who is taken away from her family by her father because her mother is pregnant again. Her foster parents teach her in the short time she is with them what a warm and loving home can be. You learn an incredible amount about the precarious life of her parents while Keegan only hints at it. The book's ending shook me to my core.
After that, I bought Keegan's novel Small Things Like These. It's another slim book, only 128 pages. Again, I could not have foreseen that it would emotionally involve me to such an extent. She uses an Irish father of five daughters to expose the story of the abuses in the so-called “Magdalen laundries". These were institutions used by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland from the 18th century to the late 20th century to house “fallen" women — sex workers, the promiscuous, even women who had never had sexual intercourse. The women lived and worked in the most appalling conditions, primarily as washers of clothes. Slavery condoned by church and state.
Keegan's wordcraft is breathtaking. I would give anything to be able to write this way about a man's realisation of just how repugnant and immoral the church and state's exploitation of vulnerable women is. When Bill Furlong, the main character, leads a young “slave" to freedom, fear and shame grip the reader's heart and many realisations dawn. The most important, for me, is that this novel, in its humility, carries within it the continuation of the art of the novel.
Then I bought Antarctica, a collection of 15 short stories from 1999. How on earth did Keegan remain a background figure for so long? Or is it simply a case of short story writers being underrated? Each one of these stories is a lightning bolt, a hammer blow, a reminder of the motivations that drive our humanity.
Keegan's next publication is So Late in the Day, to be released in November. Let October pass quickly! Thank you, Eben.
Foster by Claire Keegan was published by Faber & Faber and costs R248 at Exclusive Books.
The successes that Richard Osman and Anthony Horowitz have achieved in the past decade with their attempts to revive Agatha Christie-like detective stories have led to all sorts of enjoyable happenings. One of them is that Phillip Margolin, who spent years in court as a lawyer defending criminals, murderers and outright scoundrels, has begun to focus on writing crime novels, with an emphasis on how the courts should sift through people's sordid stories.
His big breakthrough was Gone, But Not Forgotten. In Murder at Black Oaks, lawyer Robin Lockwood takes centre stage. She must get someone off the hook who is wanted for murder, which she does. But the man is not as innocent as you'd think. Murder at Black Oaks is a tribute to Agatha Christie, a visible attempt to be more Agatha than Christie herself. And it's brilliant. Stay awake while you read!
Murder at Black Oaks by Phillip Margolin was published by Minotaur Books and costs R598 at Exclusive Books.
Hot & passionate
There is a strange pleasure in the way you gradually realise a writer thinks outside the box. Samantha Downing has already let me “experience" delightful things with He Started It and My Lovely Wife. With A Twisted Love Story, she has surpassed herself. This time, she introduces a couple named Ivy and Wes. They are hot and passionate. They also fight a lot. As if they want to get all the fighting out of the way before they tie the knot. And because they don't think they're going to marry each other. In the meantime, they enjoy the murky buildup to passionate reunions. Over and over. Until a jealous outsider intervenes.
When things get seriously weird in love stories, there are few writers who can hold a candle to Downing. You read the story quickly and the ending leaves you nodding in understanding. You and the writer know something that no one else does.
A Twisted Love Story by Samantha Downing was published by Penguin and costs R322 at Exclusive Books.
This book provided me with one of the most frustrating reading experiences. It's neither the author's nor the book's fault. I was intrigued by the fact that Harry Whittaker wrote the book after his mother, his co-author, outlined its framework before her death from cancer. I suspect he takes after his father. As a writer, he's a good imitator, but as a visionary, he doesn't quite match his mother.
All things considered, the book is the eighth in the so-called Seven Sisters series. Lucinda Riley promised to conclude the series with a book about Pa Salt, and outlined the story before falling ill. Those familiar with Riley's books will know that the sisters of the series title are the adopted children of the wealthy entrepreneur, Pa Salt. Pa Salt has long been deceased. I've read two of the books in the series, which gave me a foundation for understanding Riley's larger construct. But it wasn't enough. If you haven't internalised a single title in the series yet, starting with this one won't help you.
Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt by Lucinda Riley and Harry Whittaker was published by Pan MacMillan and costs R395 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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