Bittersweet reflections in a selection of South African poetry and prose

A poetry collection that recounts four journeys, including a physical one from the source of the Orange River to to the Cape Peninsula. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

With the year drawing to a close, political scientist and published poet Keith Gottschalk shares his recommendations for good reads that cut to the chase on undercurrents in South African society.

1) Glowfly Dance, by Jade Gibson. With the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign, plus the Oscar Pistorius and Shrien Dewani trials, no books could press more hot button topics than Glowfly Dance.

This novel shows the gutsy resilience, perspective and survival of abused children. It also shows up the inability and failure of the law to shield women from violence, while protecting the perpetrators.

Glowfly Dance was shortlisted for two international literary prizes - the 2010 Dundee International Book Prize and the 2011 Virginia Prize for Fiction. Reviewers have described the book as both harrowing and lyrical.

Glowfly Dance is told from the perspective of Mai, a young girl of mixed heritage. When you read of the racism she encounters in school and it’s so in-your-face realism you know that this is based on a true story. In depicting the failure of the law and society to protect women and children in danger, the novel aims to stimulate debate and bring about awareness and positive change.

2) A Suitcase of Lifela by Mannini Mokhothu.

This poetry collection is a fourfold journey:

  • from the source of the Senqu/Gariep/Orange River to the Cape Peninsula;

  • a journey through a girl’s coming of age;

  • a journey from a village to a city by the sea;

  • a journey from poverty to middle class.

These poems are enriched with the occasional Sesotho word and phrase. (A glossary is provided at the back of the book). The lyrical Maletsunyane waterfall, childhood hunger, walking to a rural school, and the ups and downs of Cape Town life, all feature in this writing by a poet, actress and script writer.

3) Rain of Ashes, by Tracy Gilpin.

This tightly-written thriller, the third by this successful author, fuses psycho-drama with the aftermath of war. It is a sensitive treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder literally driving one character mad.

For South African readers it resonates with testimonies two decades ago at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. But this is not a political book. It is an intensely personal exploration of characters and relations, with the warp and weft of compassion and guilt.

4) Roads to Barnato by Arnon Hurwitz.

Some of Hurwitz stories are specific to ante bellum South Africa, such as the neurotic white madam and her harried black servant. But most of these short stories are universal themes, bringing to life village realities – loveless marriages, broken relationships, superstitions, lonely intellectuals, suicide and death.

We read the clumsiness of misfits and binge-drinking men, culminating in the hilarity of a husband, daughter and servant all running away together to escape the wife’s venomous tongue.