THE BOOK OF HAPPENSTANCE

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 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2011

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.

DEAR EDWARD

A 12-year-old boy is the sole survivor of a plane crash—a study in before and after.

Edward Adler is moving to California with his adored older brother, Jordan, and their parents: Mom is a scriptwriter for television, Dad is a mathematician who is home schooling his sons. They will get no further than Colorado, where the plane goes down. Napolitano’s (A Good Hard Look, 2011, etc.) novel twins the narrative of the flight from takeoff to impact with the story of Edward’s life over the next six years. Taken in by his mother’s sister and her husband, a childless couple in New Jersey, Edward’s misery is constant and almost impermeable. Unable to bear sleeping in the never-used nursery his aunt and uncle have hastily appointed to serve as his bedroom, he ends up bunking next door, where there's a kid his age, a girl named Shay. This friendship becomes the single strand connecting him to the world of the living. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we meet all the doomed airplane passengers, explore their backstories, and learn about their hopes and plans, every single one of which is minutes from obliteration. For some readers, Napolitano’s premise will be too dark to bear, underlining our terrible vulnerability to random events and our inability to protect ourselves or our children from the worst-case scenario while also imagining in exhaustive detail the bleak experience of survival. The people around Edward have no idea how to deal with him; his aunt and uncle try their best to protect him from the horrors of his instant celebrity as Miracle Boy. As one might expect, there is a ray of light for Edward at the end of the tunnel, and for hardier readers this will make Napolitano’s novel a story of hope.

Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-5478-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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