A book that elicits a storm of emotions and disgust


A book that elicits a storm of emotions and disgust

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH reads about suicide, hospitality and The Three-Body Problem.


HOW do you process the death of a beloved spouse? It's one of the most tiring experiences because you get to know yourself, learn to hate yourself, and finally, after months, even years, make peace with yourself and accept the loss. For some people, acceptance never comes.

It is true that mourning bruises people, also that it can heal you of your egocentrism if you have the courage (and ability) to be honest with yourself.

However, the whole situation becomes drastically different when the spouse in question has taken his or her own life. Suicide.

Mourning acquires dimensions that cannot be allayed with the processing of guilt and the self-hatred that so often follows “ordinary" deaths. Ordinary deaths make you see life in Kodachrome; suicide generates a high-definiton monochrome.

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Blake Butler's Molly is his meditation on everything that preceded the suicide of his wife, poet/cook Molly Brodak, and what happened to him afterwards as he found out he never really knew her well.

It's an account of his grieving process and a book that provoked a storm of emotions and disgust in me. I can't remember the last time I responded so vehemently to a book; I just know that I set out not to write about it until I'd processed it. One must take a stance on the ethical grounds of his account — is he free to speak of a form of betrayal?

In many ways, Blake and Molly's story is reminiscent of that of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Two writers, people with an intimate knowledge of mood swings. Both with their own demons. Blake aware of Molly's labile personality but unprepared (perhaps because of his own abuses of the things that make life softer on the nerves) for the insights the diary entries on her computer bring after her suicide. What do you do when you find out your partner has concealed incredible trauma and bizarre insights into herself? Her sexual adventures with other men while she was married, some with her students, of which he was mostly unaware? He had the good manners to never peek in her computer; if he had done so, he might have anticipated her death.

It's familiar territory for people who have experienced the grieving process. To look for signs and clues, for deeper secrets that you might have known about if you had just asked her about them during her lifetime. Butler's disillusionment looms large, and this book is a confessional playing hide and seek with a rational search. It is also a gruelling meditation on the distortion of love during a marriage.

Blake comes to the horrible realisation that the happy alliance between him and Molly was a construct, a mirage. His reaction to the map of her turbulent interior life, as it emerges from her diary, rips everything to shreds. She read his literary writing, he hers. They were each other's sounding board. Now, with Molly gone, he discovers that he hadn't even come to know her through her poems.

Some reviewers describe Molly as a modern masterpiece of autobiographical writing. Maybe, maybe not. For me, it was a stroll into the hell of two people's trauma. Do you want to finish reading it, I asked myself early on. I did, and oddly enough I felt cleansed.

Molly herself, however, has no chance to defend herself.

Molly by Blake Butler was published by Archway Editions and costs $13.13 at Amazon.


Think back to your best restaurant experience. Mine was in Sunnyside, Pretoria in 1989. The restaurant was La Madeleine, the creation of Belgian chef Daniel Leusch. I can remember everything I ate that night — because Leusch explained his menu in memorable fashion, and after dinner came to sit with us and told food stories.

Today, I am married to an ex-restaurant owner and realise Leusch was only half the story, and that he would never have talked about all the logistical, emotional and other issues involved in running a good restaurant.

Will Guidara has turned a struggling New York restaurant into a cultural phenomenon. His successes with Eleven Madison Park and NoMad are rooted in something Leusch did effortlessly years ago — being hospitable, entertaining, and giving people something they didn't expect.

Unreasonable Hospitality is of utmost value to people in the restaurant and hospitality industry, but because it revolves around the art of giving and the sublime gift of surprising people at a level that costs them nothing but is indeed a considerable effort for the giver, it is a book of life lessons. If your hospitality transcends the boundaries of reason, you acquire the kind of power that no money can buy.

Guidara has insisted throughout his career that his staff do everything right and according to his instructions — but he was also the one who made sure the needs and talents of each staff member were taken care of. I found this work inspiring, most of all because I now understand my wife better.

Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara was published by Bantam Doubleday Dell and costs R795 at Exclusive Books.

Book vs series

This is a so-called tie-in. The popular TV series The Three-Body Problem is based on these two books. There are still books on the way, and another season of the series.

The series was exciting and captivating for five episodes, after which it faded sharply. The latter part of the series one gets in The Dark Forest, as well as the link to the further history yet to come. If you've seen the series, forget about the books. If you haven't seen it, read the books instead.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu was published by Bloomsbury and costs R315 at Exclusive Books.

I tried to combine the two processes, because I'm the kind of person who too often scrolls to the last page to see what's going to happen. With The Three-Body Problem, it was often more a case of wanting to find out what on earth I was seeing now, because I didn't understand it. The real problem, the one that has nothing to do with the three suns, is that at the end of the series you don't really feel like more of this.

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu was published by Tor Books and costs R406 at Exclusive Books.


♦ VWB ♦

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