A quirky South African lexicographer is forced to rethink her past and future after falling victim to a most unusual crime.

Three months into a year-long gig compiling a dictionary of archaic Afrikaans words for the elegant Theo Verwey, Helena Verbloem comes home to her garden flat to find that someone has taken her prized collection of sea shells and defecated on her carpet. With few friends in Durban, and no enemies to speak of, she is shaken by the violation but also curious. The shells, which meant so much to her, had little resale value, and her experience with the local police raises more questions than answers. And it gets even weirder after an unlikely suspect is found hanged. That experience, along with a phone call from a man claiming to have known her when she was a sexually adventurous young writer, triggers dormant memories and a fair share of regret. Helena feels something in her life is brewing, and it causes some distance between her and her longtime lover Frans, who lives in another town. While nursing an attraction to the married Theo, she spends her days at the Natural History Museum, where they work, conversing with the other staffers. An interesting bunch, they range from Sailor, a strapping young man with admirers of both genders, to Hugo Hattingh, a brilliant paleontologist with Asperger’s tendencies. Helena becomes good friends with Sof, a translator who finds herself erotically fixated on her family’s wheelchair-bound physician. Sof accompanies Helena to the nearby town of Ladybrand, where they meet up with a young mixed-race man who seems to know something about the shells. Or not. Eventually, even Helena realizes that the shells are probably the least-significant part of her puzzle, as she begins to chart a new personal course. A stealth gem, Winterbach’s (To Hell with Cronjé, 2010) captivating book offers up a fascinating heroine, made all the more so for her lack of so-called endearing qualities. This is a challenging portrait of an artist that defies easy categorization.


Pub Date: June 14, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-934824-33-7

Page Count: 254

Publisher: Open Letter

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2011

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A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986

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The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...


An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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