Four bright, shiny windows on the world


Four bright, shiny windows on the world

DEBORAH STEINMAIR explores the ends of the earth without a passport — on the pages of books.


OUR country hesitates on the brink of bankruptcy and the exchange rate is so dismal that travelling has become a guilt-inducing luxury. I forget about these things when I read. I fly without a passport to the far corners of the earth and spend time in exotic destinations. This week I was in New York, London, Hollywood in the golden age of the silver screen, and the merciless jungles of Sumatra.

The first book is set in my kind of America: the United States of pale souls, artists and creative spirits centred on the island of Manhattan. Michael Cunningham is one of my favourite authors. His book A Home at the End of the World will stand on my last bookshelf. Like all of Cunningham's books, it has obviously flawed elements, but the whole has moments of brilliance that shine extra brightly amid the imperfection. His novel The Hours, about Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, was acclaimed and adapted into a film.

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Initially, I thought he had rewritten A Home at the End of the World without the youthful enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness that made it shine so brightly. The premise is more or less the same: three people, two men and a woman, are entwined over the years. They all love one another, but the woman and one of the men are in love with the second man. They live together in harmony until a turning point occurs.

Isabel is an editor at a reputable magazine which, like all print media, is a sinking ship. Her husband Dan is a househusband — when he was younger, he was handsome and inspired to be a musician. He played in a band but never really made it big. Now he wants to revive his dream. The kids are smart and eccentric. They live in an apartment in Brooklyn and the attic, with its own entrance, is home to Isabel's gay brother, Robbie. He wanted to study medicine but became a teacher instead. His relationships never work out. Isabel believes all his lovers resemble Dan: blond, attractive, musicians.

Now the equilibrium is challenged because Robbie has to move out as the nursery is becoming too small for the two kids.

It's the kind of book I like: where the plane of human relationships is the stage and battleground. Cunningham has the ability to place under the spotlight that fleeting moment of insight, that elusive moment of clarity or vision, that vague feeling we believed was inexpressible … if it ever was a feeling and not heartburn or the onset of migraine or menstrual cramps.

It's a delightful meditation on love in all its forms, on longing and throbbing loss. It captivated me from start to finish.

Who, what, where and how much?

Day by Michael Cunningham was published by 4th Estate and costs R255 at Loot.

Heather Morris's previous book was set in Auschwitz: she dares to go where angels fear to tread. Here, the action begins in Singapore and shifts to the island of Palembang in Sumatra. It's World War 2 and Allied women and children are held in concentration camps by the Japanese. The conditions are dire, they are starving and worked like slaves. They get drenched in the rain, beaten, eaten alive by mosquitoes, and at night mice gnaw at their toes. They die from fever and disease.

There are women from all walks of life and they form an alliance in suffering. Two British sisters, in particular, take the lead in founding a choir that performs classical works, using their voices as instruments. There are bright, unforgettable characters like the Australian nurses.

Morris's speciality lies in those moments when the human spirit sprouts wings and soars high above the mud and blood. It's poignant and exhausting, and you will cry several times. Furthermore, it's based on a true story.

Who, what, where and how much?

Sisters under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris was published by Zaffre and costs R405 at Exclusive Books.

Lisa Hall is the author of psychological thrillers that populate the bestseller lists. This novel requires a pinch of suspension of disbelief since it is set in two eras. The narrator, Lily Jones, is a cleaner in a hotel in Hollywood. Her mind is set on the movies. It's 2019.

Then she cleans the suite where an up-and-coming star, Honey Black, was murdered in 1949. The murder remains unsolved. She bumps her head against the tap and ends up in the bathtub. She wakes up in 1949. Now she becomes Honey Black's personal assistant and gets to know her well. Honey possesses a certain quality, that aura of mystery and old-world glamour; a mixture of vulnerability and calculatedness.

The clock ticks off the days to Honey's murder and Lily becomes obsessed with preventing it, protecting Honey. She watches everyone around Honey like a hawk. There's a manipulative director, fair-weather friends, adversaries and a violent ex-husband.

The glory and glamour of Hollywood in its infancy draw the reader in. I sometimes wanted to shake Lily and say: open your eyes, don't be so naive and blindly trusting. I saw from the outset who had killed Honey but suspected there would be a twist in the tale, like the hero-worshipping Lily, who had travelled through time, becoming disillusioned and driving the knife in between her ribs. You'll have to read for yourself. It's captivating and thrilling.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Mysterious Double Death of Honey Black by Lisa Hall was published by Canelo and costs R213 at Exclusive Books.

It goes without saying that a new Jeffrey Archer has to be devoured. It is set in 1996 and the action moves between the Tower of London, Scotland Yard, Parliament and Buckingham Palace. It's smooth and elegant.

The crown and sword have to be transported from the Tower to the palace when the Queen opens Parliament with a speech, after which they are carried to Parliament in a special carriage riding in front of her. Under the strictest supervision, of course. But any plan has loopholes for criminal masterminds to exploit.

White-collar criminal Miles Faulkner is back on the loose. He's not so much interested in the crown jewels as in revenge. In his sights are Chief Superintendent William Warwick and his sidekick, Inspector Ross Hogan. He wants to make them pay and ruin their careers after they had him locked up.

The protocol, the rituals, the pomp and ceremonies are fascinating. Archer is a master storyteller. It will keep you on the edge of your seat.

In this way, I travel all over and explore fascinating characters and the shifting dynamics between them.

Who, what, where and how much?

Traitors Gate by Jeffrey Archer was published by HarperCollins and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Israel “IZ" Kamakawiwo’ole sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow":

♦ VWB ♦

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