A year of battle-axes and survivors


A year of battle-axes and survivors

DEBORAH STEINMAIR followed her nose this year to novels about anti-heroines who do not conform to expectations, instead holding their own.


EVERY year I read more, because my years for reading are becoming fewer. This year I have read more than ever; now that I get paid by Vrye Weekblad to read, I read for a living.

Excellent Afrikaans books were published this year, including works by Deon Meyer, Marita van der Vyver, Annemarie van Niekerk, PP Fourie, SJ Naude, Eben Venter, Etienne van Heerden, Tom Dreyer and Bibi Slippers. I wrote about these highlights last week.

Now I want to mention a few English books that have captivated me. Incidentally, they were all written by female authors and revolve around strong, unique women. I enjoy immersing myself in the minds of women who view reality with a keen eye, like a visitor from Mars trying to understand life on Earth from behind the veil of the unfamiliar. Women who defy expectations, paving their own way — enduring, angry, unconventional. I love reading about them.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Making books

Williams's first book, The Dictionary of Lost Words, had all of us scrambling for words. Bookbinder is set in the same era and region. The focus is once again on words, knowledge and the thirst for learning. Some characters reappear, such as Tilda the suffragette and Esme, the main character from Dictionary. We are in London in the lead-up to World War 1 and as it unfolds. The reader is drawn in completely. The horror of war, landscapes filled with dead boys and halls full of mutilated young men are depicted unforgettably. The mud, sweat, blood and excrement. Mothers who will never recover. Potential spilt like milk. Shattered psyches and the hunger for love and tenderness. Peggy cares for a Flemish soldier with half a face and they become attached to each other.

It's one of those delightful books, finer than Belgian chocolate.

The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams was published by Penguin Random House and costs R360 at Graffiti.

Wasted lives

This is one of those novels I cannot recommend highly enough. If you ask me, it inhabits those dizzying heights where The Dictionary of Lost Words, Lessons in Chemistry, The Bookbinder of Jericho and Miss Benson’s Beetle reside.

It's dark and atmospheric, evoking vivid images that linger. It unfolds in the distant past (1938) and the recent past (1997) on the British coast. In the distant past, young Lord Goldsborough erected a cathedral of glass, later known as The Cathedral of the Marshes. He was a dark character, full of anger and misogyny. As the sole heir, he ruled his sister, Lady Vita, with an iron hand, keeping her away from the outside world. She was sensitive and emotional, and rumours circulated in the region, including those of incest.

Crosby writes beautifully and scenes unfold like a film. The reader becomes immersed in forbidden loves, wasted lives and the chance for realisation and individuation for a descendant. It's an evocative love story and a book you read slowly to savour the words on your tongue, with characters lingering in your mind.

Vita and the Birds by Polly Crosby was published by HarperCollins and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

Partying hard

This lovely, lyrical book marks the debut of a young Irish writer, aged 30. Not much happens; rather, it is about the narrator's slanted look at the world. She is young and bored, lost at sea. Her best friend is dead. We don't learn the reason until later, and the way she grieves is to deny the pain. She and her friends in Belfast hang out almost every night, always drinking too much, taking party drugs regularly and stumbling through the days.

It sounds alienating, but over everything a tenderness hovers, a heart.

Lazy City by Rachel Connolly was published by Canongate Books and costs R410 at Loot.

Minute feet

The narrator is eight-year-old Tan Yunxian.

Women of a certain social standing are the property of men and may almost never leave the settlement. They live in luxury and beauty, stumbling and hobbling on tiny feet at the end of thin legs whose calf muscles have atrophied. If you bump into them, they fall over. This defencelessness makes men weak and stirs their “essence" (semen).

And I realise: the men one reads about today who kidnap a woman, put her in the basement, make her pregnant and keep her and her children captive while holding all power over them are just genetic throwbacks to men in previous centuries, when women and children were possessions and the man was lord and king.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R445 at Exclusive Books.


This book I devoured in one sitting and I could barely look up. It's domestic noir at its best, darkest and most mesmerising.

Rachel has been held in a barn for five years by Aidan, who kidnapped her. The barn is on the farm where he lives with his wife and daughter. He goes to see her almost every day, rapes her, gives her food and water, empties her slop bucket. She is shackled to the floor. Rachel is pure will: she wants to survive and get away. Moreover, Aidan tells her about more than one woman he has killed.

You're going to stay awake all night to see Rachel untangle herself from this situation. The book is outstanding — it's the French author's debut in English.

The Quiet Tenant by Clémence Michallon was published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and costs R384 at Loot.

Falling apart

This book took my breath away. It has no storyline or chapters, it's merely the confused stream of consciousness of a young, overwhelmed mother trying not to fall apart after the birth of her child. The insane nightmare world of baby mothers is painted. Dad goes to work every day in a suit, plays golf to network, moves to the guest room because he needs his sleep. Baby is difficult, does not want to eat, does not want to thrive. Mommy is freaking out and she memorably articulates it. Her sentences fizzle out spectacularly, like poetry or prophecy.

Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy was published by Faber & Faber and costs R341 at Exclusive Books.


Some books simply melt into your mouth like a Lindt ball. I like books where the narrator can barely distinguish a hawk from a handsaw when the wind blows south. Cassandra is such a character. From an early age, she felt like an extraterrestrial traveller who had to learn to gauge the enigmatic behaviour of people. “That I'm some kind of alien, trying to learn how to be a human from scratch every day."

Her struggle is ours: to gain a foothold on this planet and navigate the turbulent sea of human relations. 

It's heartbreaking and funny at the same time. And somewhere it resonates.

The Cassandra Complex by Holly Smale was published by Century and costs R340 at Exclusive Books.


Grace is a polyglot — she is fluent in five languages but cannot express her true feelings in any of them. She doesn't have a vocabulary for loss. She's traumatised and freaking out. Gradually, the reader finds out why.

There's quite a bit of quirky humour and interesting snippets of information about foreign languages.

Now Grace is in the grip of menopause: chubby, sweaty, weary and lost, like Kathy Bates' character in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Her husband left her. Her teenage daughter no longer wants to live with her and she has been banned from attending the child's 16th birthday, which is celebrated at her father's house.

But Grace isn't going to be stopped. She orders an elaborate cake and when, already late, she gets stuck in a traffic jam, she abandons her car in the middle of the road and sets off on foot with the melting cake in her hands. She loses her temper with roadhogs, falls into a ditch, but soldiers on covered in mud like Rambo. Something had to give.

In addition to everything else, this is a moving story of dysfunctional love.

It's an impressive debut you won't easily forget

Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood was published by Penguin Books Ltd and costs R309 at Exclusive Books.

Stubborn redhead

Carlotta Dell'oro is not a woman who lives up to society's expectations of femininity. She is 1.88m with flame-red hair. Her absent mother, the statuesque, golden Clothilde, referred to her as “it" and “the giantess". Her parents were small and delicate, but maybe the scatterbrained, nervous glassblower who raised her isn't her biological father?

It's an impressive book thanks to the lyrical quality of the prose and the eccentric, stubborn characters. Themes are loss and the search for individuation. It's a story of oddballs and ambitious idiots with all-consuming obsessions. Turbulent as the sea and just as mesmerising.

The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker was published by Virago and costs R245 at Loot.

Ballet and yearning

I devoured this book in one sitting, all night.

Carlisle's parents were dancers but her father left when she was little to be with the love of his life, the beautiful and brilliant James, also a dancer. They live in an apartment in Greenwich Village, New York and she visits them once a year. She breathes in the beauty, culture and glamour. Like everyone else, she is enchanted by the charismatic James and his elegant way of speaking and perceiving.

Now she is grown-up and her father is dying. She has been estranged from him and James for years due to a falling out that the reader desperately wants to hear more about. This happens in installments.

It's a sweet, unsentimental account of a long-term relationship between two men. The battlefield of enduring love. Of individuation, ambition, yearning, love and forgiveness. It makes you flip pages as if you're reading crime fiction.

It makes you grasp throwaway moments and the negative spaces between people. I highly recommend it.

They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey was published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC and costs R315 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.