Book Bites: 30 December

A South African frontier novel, Mindy Mejia's third work of fiction and Yusra Mardini's memoir - here's what we recommend this week

07 January 2019 - 14:14
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Red Dog ***
Willem Anker, Kwela, R320

Expertly translated into English by Michiel Heyns, in a way that retains the Afrikaans original’s stark lyricism, Willem Anker’s historical novel focuses on the life and exploits of Coenraad de Buys. The much-abused word “legendary” genuinely applies to Buys, a well-documented force of nature who was larger than life in every way, with voracious appetites for sex, violence and general trouble-making. Much has been made of the style in which this tale is related - Cormac McCarthy is the principal reference - but while the choice of more abstract, protagonist perspective-driven prose adds overall freshness, there is a good deal of repetition, and some might feel that the piece’s anti-hero overstays his welcome. Bruce Dennill @BroosDennill

Leave No Trace ****
Mindy Mejia, Quercus, R335

This has nothing to do with the recent indie movie of the same name, although both involve forests and both are dark with loss but tempered by the fragile comfort of human connections. Mejia’s third novel explores the Boundary Waters, a protected wilderness area overlapping Canada and the US, a place of wild and extreme beauty where people can and do disappear. Mejia also explores the troubled life of Maya - whose mother abandoned her as a child and who now works as a speech therapist at a psychiatric facility - and the even stranger world of Lucas, restrained in this clinic after 10 years in the forest, who needs Maya’s help to return and save his father. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph ****
Yusra Mardini, Bluebird Press, R300

Throughout her memoir, Olympian swimmer Yusra Mardini grapples with the word “refugee”. How does one word describe the horrors she witnessed as a child in Syria - watching neighbours disappear, buildings collapse and bombs drop in the swimming pool? How does one word suddenly become her entire identity - the only thing that people can see about her? And then, after facing so many narrow escapes from death, how do you deal with the survivor guilt and get on with a normal life once you’re safe? Butterfly reads like fiction yet it’s all painfully real. Yusra’s crisp, honest voice makes the tale all the more compelling. Fast-paced, action-packed and searing, Butterfly is a necessary addition to literature on what it means to be displaced from your homeland. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

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