Writing fiction connecting Scotland and South Africa presents a challenge, but Wicomb makes both worlds her own.




Elliptical stories about the complexities of race, class, gender, generation and geography.

A native South African who now lives and teaches in Scotland, Wicomb (Playing in the Light, 2006, etc.) employs both Cape Town and Glasgow as settings, most often both in the same tale. She opens with “Boy in a jute-sack hood,” a short but densely packed stream-of-consciousness narrative by an academic who has transplanted himself from his native Scotland to South Africa. Having just finished a book after his wife (or lover) has left him, he seems to live mainly inside his head, until a chance encounter with a worker’s son renews a spark of social engagement. “Disgrace” depicts the awkward relationship between Grace, a 74-year-old South African cleaning woman, and a visiting Scottish poet and anti-apartheid activist. The collection takes a metafictional turn with “The one that got away,” about a Scottish-born conceptual artist and his no-nonsense South African bride on what passes for a honeymoon in Glasgow; ultimately, Wicomb has her male protagonist commenting on his portrayal in the fiction. The same couple returns in “There’s the bird that never flew,” in which the artist offers his wife some advice that might provide a key to appreciating these stories: “There is nothing to it, nothing arcane about looking at art. It’s just about giving it time, attention, looking carefully, because if you can describe a work accurately, you’re more than halfway towards understanding what’s going on.” Most of the stories find a character translating experience from one culture to another, both cultures likely foreign to the reader, who must decipher patois such as dronklap, bredie and verskrik from context. The author plunges the reader into the middle of each, letting the stories and characters reveal themselves as they proceed.

Writing fiction connecting Scotland and South Africa presents a challenge, but Wicomb makes both worlds her own.

Pub Date: June 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59558-457-1

Page Count: 192

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2009

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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