Short stories, self-help, crime and corpulence


Short stories, self-help, crime and corpulence

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH once again entices us with carrots, Ferraris and excellent short stories.


IT'S a shame that short stories have to take a back seat. Relatively few volumes of short stories appear every year, but when they do they are usually of particularly high quality thanks to publishers' rigorous screening processes. And in that small collection of published volumes, Tessa Hadley's After the Funeral is certainly among the best.

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Hadley's forte is not highly cerebral stories. She tells of ordinary people, townies and rural folk, subjected to the rituals and rigours of their environments. It's what happens to them that makes the stories special, and how Hadley reveals their lives.

I'll have to break the unwritten rule of reviewing to describe Hadley's formidable penmanship but I'll try not to reveal the central secret. Let's take a look at the title story, which deals with the aftermath of a BOAC pilot's unexpected death in a New York hotel room. In Reading, England, his widow and two little daughters hold a funeral with his brothers, their wives and his mother. The widow struggles — her own family shine in their absence.

The eldest daughter largely takes over the leading role in the house, but over time the widow shakes off her grief. She starts working as a doctor's receptionist, learns to drive, blossoms to such an extent that her children eavesdrop when the doctor visits and talks to their mother in a muffled voice late at night.

The doctor has dreams for a life with the mother but she is unwilling. Her eldest daughter and the doctor begin to forge plans to get the mother to agree.

You get the picture? That's only a quarter of the story. The rest I can only sum up with a biblical phrase: the sins of the fathers.

Hadley's most distinctive writing trick is the way she opens windows for the reader's imagination to enter. She has a remarkable way of telling one story and in the process suggesting and developing several others. She makes your mind's eye multitask.

One by one, Hadley will upset or confirm all your suspicions about what's really going on, and when the story's big revelatory moment comes, your eyes are opened and you reread it, stripped of your shortsightedness.

The other stories are often immersed in a comfortless gloom from which hope and love often bring relief. Then comes the 12th and final story, Coda, and Hadley shuffles through her full register of emotions to the jubilation of a lonely woman's last words when she finds love. I wanted to cheer along with the narrator, so great is the moment.

Read for yourself. Please.

After the Funeral by Tessa Hadley was published by Vintage and costs R522 at Exclusive Books.

Deceptively superficial

Robin Sharma has written so many self-help books (The Everyday Hero Manifesto, The 5am Club, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari) that one begins to wonder why he hasn't started his own church. He has all the answers. You can be happy. Just stop confusing happiness with money. And then he gives you eight habits to ensure you don't fall on your A among all the other poor plodders.

Yes, everything he says is true and will be good for you if you always keep it in mind. That's how your mother raised you. But he presents it in a deceptively superficial manner, seemingly aimed at people who can't absorb more than a page a day.

It was when I got to lesson 74 that I realised: if this book is your only hope, you're lost. It's where he says that if you just do what your heart tells you all the time, you will create your magnum opus, everything will be wonderful and you won't die one day with your greatness still frozen within you.

The Wealth Money Can't Buy by Robin Sharma was published by Ebury and costs R405 at Exclusive Books.

His best genre

Good heavens! Can you imagine what it must be like to find out in your thirties that the cosy existence you created for yourself in a small college town, hiding all your shameful secrets (like your daughter being born in a prison) is teetering? Your path to a comfortable middle age, once so neatly determined, suddenly becomes unsafe because of the re-entry into your life of your long-estranged twin sister after she found the trail of the mother who left you years ago.

That's the starting point for Hard Girls, and because it sounds like one of those horrible Netflix telenovellas, I must immediately dispel all doubts: Hard Girls is a great new kind of crime novel. J Robert Lennon is a quirky writer — sometimes literarily minded (Familiar, Pieces for the Left Hand), sometimes aiming in the direction of more popular fiction (Broken River). But Hard Girls is the beginning of a detective series built around Jane Pool and her sister Lila, with their ex-CIA agent father as a co-bloodhound. This novel is the foundation for a series and the brilliant plot surprises leave one convinced that Lennon has finally found his best genre. I'm sure this novel will have a second life as a TV series.

Hard Girls by J Robert Lennon was published by Mulholland and costs R620 at Exclusive Books.

Through thick and thin

If you lived in Vanderbijlpark in 1998 and knew the Du Rands, you would have met Rebel Wilson in the flesh. The Australian actress was a Rotary exchange student that year — before she gained fame and fortune with the Pitch Perfect movies. She says beautiful things about the Du Rand family and South Africa, in her nice chatty style.

Wilson has a keen eye for detail and knows exactly how to make you  curious with all the names she drops. She's 40 now, her sense of humour is slightly dated and she hasn't really lived enough to warrant a memoir. She tells a short story in a long way and what one gathers is that corpulence sometimes has benefits. Only for admirers.

Rebel Rising by Rebel Wilson was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R642 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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