Three to spend your book tokens on; set in South Africa, the Carolinas and the north of England; a Michael Johnston end-of-year book review.

doublenegativevladislavicThere are several shelves worth of novels telling the grim story of South Africa’s apartheid years – Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, André Brink, J M Coetzee and many more – but not so many that explore the Mandela years.  One book of the new wave of post-apartheid novels is the excellent fictional memoir by Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative [London: & Other Stories, 2013].  The narrator is Neville Lister whom we meet in his teenage dropout years.  When he quits university, his frustrated father arranges for him to spend a day with fictional famous photographer Saul Auerbach; a day which affects the rest of his life.  To avoid conscription and being sent to fight on the country’s borders Lister, like many others, ‘escapes’ to London but, as the cliché puts it, you can take Lister out of South Africa but you cannot take South Africa out of Lister.  Ten years later he returns to pick up some of the threads of his life that have become unravelled.  Finally, we encounter him in later middle age, now a professional photographer and hence an acute observer of what has changed, what has morphed and what has not altered.  This is a case of still waters that run deeply.  On the surface the pace and the language is gentle but, thanks to the skill of writing, the reader becomes more and more aware of the turbulence beneath the surface.  I will rate this 7.5 out of 10 (and declare an interest; I am a subscriber-supporter of the publisher And Other Stories.)

If you want a real page turner to wallop through in a couple of days, you need to readThis Dark Road To Mercy by Wiley Cash the newly published thriller by Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy [London: Doubleday, 2014].  There are multiple narrators each with his or her own agenda, and Cash captures the different voices extremely well.  Set mainly in the Carolinas, the story follows the events that surround and involve a 12-year-old girl in care with her sister, their failed father, their flawed guardian ad litem, and a hit man pursuing the father for private as well as ‘professional’ motives.  The action is fast with the back-stories told in flashbacks.  The descriptions of the country’s baseball obsession, the malls, gas stations and fast food outlets, motels and boardwalks ring very true.  The tension builds steadily and peaks with only a few pages to go.  Just possibly, the ending is on the gentle side but since the heroine is only twelve I can forgive the author for that.  Verdict: 7 out of 10 and the book came to me through the good offices of the Litro book club and Transworld.

TheBeaconSusanHillSusan Hill is a well-respected and talented writer and since it is only 154 pages long I am cross with myself for only just getting round to reading it.  What seems like a straightforward family saga focused around The Beacon, [London: Chatto & Windus, 2008] a bleak North Country farmhouse, and centred on the older daughter May, becomes progressively more and more bleak with each successive chapters.  It seems that into every one of the characters’ lives rather a lot of rain must fall.  The story opens with the death of May’s widowed mother in the farmhouse that is no longer surrounded by a working farm.  Hill paces the action and the events and drops hints that Frank has done something that puts him beyond the pale but keeps the reader waiting for two-thirds of the book to find out exactly what and, just maybe, why.  The prose is lyrical; an elegy for the lives of those who were born and lived in The Beacon.  The book closes with the funeral of Bertha and the unexpected consequences that flow from her death.  This polished gem rates 8 out of 10.

My next post will begin my review of the best reads of 2013.

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