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.