Loss follows you like a stray dog


Loss follows you like a stray dog

DEBORAH STEINMAIR has read four books in which people wrestle to come to terms with bereavement.


I read four books that loosely share one theme: loss.

It's a topical and timeless theme — loss is embedded in the texture of our existence. The absent remains throbbing, omnipresent.

A bag full of bones

In this novel, a stressed-out city detective, Jake Jackson, gets a second chance. His hermit-like uncle dies, leaving him a property deep in the countryside. He can start over and reinvent himself.

It's in the middle of nowhere, pristine and picturesque. The area is sparsely inhabited and the locals are strident and far from welcoming. He discovers a bag full of human bones and begins to find out more about a young woman who died on a nearby farm. Like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, murders take place in his immediate vicinity. Now he has to play detective again. In the meantime, he's fitter, stronger, skinnier and less stressed after hours and days of exercise and labour in the fresh air.

What makes it interesting is that there are so few suspects. I saw the end coming but it was a captivating journey into the human psyche. Jeffery Deaver describes it as “a pitch-perfect blend of psychological thriller and classic detective fiction".

Loss lived in the psyche of the woman who was murdered or committed suicide. We get to know her in retrospect; her loneliness and grief. Jake, too, learns to let go, to live stripped down and secluded, to make peace with his own thoughts.

Death Under a Little Sky by Stig Abell was published by HarperCollins and costs R375 at Exclusive Books.

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The master’s gaze

I eagerly snapped up this book. Can you ever read enough about this misogynistic genius with his irresistible vitality and creative drive? It held my attention but I felt thwarted nonetheless. It's as if the author's research covered only the historical facts and information — it sometimes reads like narrative, telling and not showing. And when we see Picasso and his jealous mistresses, it's as if from the outside, from afar. No one jumps out of the page three-dimensionally. The story is told from different points of view — a few of Picasso's women speak.

It is set in New York and the south of France in the 1950s. The main character is fictional; Alana Olson is an ambitious young journalist with a burning desire to write about Picasso and meet him. Coincidentally, as it later comes to light, her mysterious mother was one of his lovers and Pablo is possibly her father.

She interviews an American woman who belonged to his circle of friends, and some of his mistresses. There's not much new — the reader sees his egocentric cruelty, his formidable focus on creativity. Women are little more than useful objects and he is happy when they fight over him.

Perhaps when a man like Picasso paints you, that is as close as he gets to love.

Picasso's circle is eccentric and glamorous but the main character's mourning for her recently deceased mother and her search for her roots stand out. An easy read but I had the feeling that I experience more character development and gain more insight into the human psyche when reading crime fiction.

Picasso's Lovers by Jeanne Mackin was published by Penguin and costs R353 at Exclusive Books.

Perchance to dream

I could barely look up as I read this book. The novel gets its hooks into you and doesn't let go before the last page. The author became interested in the twilight world of sleep when he read that the average person spends 33 years of their lives asleep.

It's a psychological thriller that will keep you from sleep. Doctor Benedict Prince is a forensic psychologist and sleep expert tasked with waking up a famous killer, Anna Ogilvy. She has been asleep for four years, ever since she (ostensibly) committed a double murder. She was found with a bloodied knife between her two friends. They were stabbed multiple times. Since then, she's been asleep. The resemblance to Sleeping Beauty and the Prince is reiterated too often in the book.

Dr Prince knows the dark chambers of consciousness and secrets that lie buried in the subconscious. He decides that Anna O (as the press calls her, after Freud's patient) needs hope.

The dilemma is that he has to help her wake up so she can be tried for murder. Anna had been a sleepwalker since childhood. This raises interesting questions, such as: are you responsible for atrocities you commit while sleeping? People have gotten away with murder in this way.

Anna lost everything, even before the incident. The reader walks on her trail. In the doctor's life, everything is not dandy either. The storyline is full of twists and you won't see the ending coming. I have questions about it, which I can't raise here. A dark, hypnotic thriller.

Anna O by Matthew Blake was published by HarperCollins and costs R350 at Exclusive Books.

Heartbreak house

This book reads like an epic poem. It's a debut novel that impresses deeply. A family lives on the banks of a river in an old house built of broken bricks. It's winter and dampness, moss and fungi are taking over. The ground is frozen and the wind rips at the rafters, howling through the crevices. In the dusky, smoky cottage, the family is falling apart and at first the reader doesn't know why.

The father, Richard, is a pale Brit who wrestles in the frost to keep a garden going: he's the Veggie Man who delivers vegetables for the area. The mother, Tess, is of Jamaican origin, graduated as an architect, fell in love with Richard and moved to the remote area. Here she lost her melodic laugh. Their two little boys are rainbow twins — Max is pale with straight hair and blue-grey eyes like Richard, Sonny looks like his mother: dark complexion, dark brown eyes, curly hair. They are inseparable.

What is the cause of the grief that has seeped into the fabric of the house? Gradually, the reader finds out that one of the family members has died and the rest are grappling with loss and denial. It's a long journey into summer and hope. I'll give you a taste of the lyrical use of language:

Sometimes there are no dreams to dream. Night-time brings other things, and we must wait patiently until it’s over. In the kitchen chamomile clouds drift across the ceiling, while Mum hides inside her mug of tea, soothed by the lullaby of the washing machine. It will soon be morning. My feet don’t make a sound as I slide through the garden on frosted grass. I’m lost inside the blackness of a new moon.

Loss is universal. It spares no one. It remains fascinating to read how the human psyche processes it. The human heart remains resilient and optimistic, despite everything. Therein lies hope.

The House of Broken Bricks by Fiona Williams was published by Faber & Faber and costs R349 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Valiant Swart sings Sonvanger:

♦ VWB ♦

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