{category archive: The Review}

Sound Bites

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

Sound Bites
by Chris Walton
Published by Jacana.
reviewed by Ben Oswest

This review originally ran, in edited form, in the Sunday Independent. Here’s the link (subscribers only):

And here’s the review in full:

At first glance, this enjoyable Gothic sex farce dolled up as a murder mystery appears to be the product of pure indulgence on its publisher’s part: for what have Zurich, Switzerland and its inhabitants during the years of the First World War to do with South Africa today?

But one of the secret pleasures of Chris Walton’s Sound Bites is lifting evidence from its pages to fit a theory about its implausible release here: the theory that South African culture – the whole shebang, its producers, consumers, bureaucrats and police – has matured to the point where incidental voices singing unfamiliar notes are made room for, because of a general agreement that the local milieu – a milieu shaped mainly by voices more pleasing to those with a nationalist bent – offers everyone some agency, a small ledge on the mossy cliff on which to trill.


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Whiteman

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Whiteman
by Tony D’Souza
reviewed by Ben Oswest

{Boswestblog is back! - after a three-month absence. Thanks for readers’ patience. More to come…}

An edited version of this review originally ran in the 4 February 2007 Sunday Independent.

To the outsiders who have tried their luck in Africa, when it comes time to write a novel about it, the first struggle is with political realism. Should their story be set in the actual African country where they did their deeds, or, more delicately, in a territory that bears all the clues, but remains nameless, or masquerades under a pseudonym? The artless title of Tony D’Souza’s first novel reveals his choice: Whiteman is an clear declaration in favour of reality.


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Short Review: Birds in Words

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

Today’s Sunday Times published a short review of mine (slightly edited) of Birds in Words, the quirky poetry compilation by Gus Ferguson and Tony Morphet. Here’s the link:

And here’s the review in full:


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My Books of the Year

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

Today’s Sunday Independent features a survey of a few dozen writers’ “books of the year” - mine among them. Here are the links for subscribers:

Only three of the titles I submitted actually made it into print - here’s the full list:

New books (all South African)

Mandela’s Ego by Lewis Nkosi (Fiction, Umuzi). Wicked satire that rivals Nkosi’s first novel, Mating Birds, as a surgical dismemberment of cherished beliefs - pure jazz to read. (Click title for review in Boswestblog.)


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Sheila Roberts on The New Suffolk Hymnbook

Monday, December 18th, 2006

An edited version of the novelist Sheila Roberts’s review of The New Suffolk Hymnbook appeared in The Weekender on Saturday. Here’s the link:

And here’s the review in full:


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Fools & Other Stories

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006

Fools

by Njabulo Ndebele
Picador Africa

reviewed by Ben Oswest

I fear that because of a silly error on my part, a legion South Africans will now think less of Ernest Hemingway. How, precisely, have I impugned Papa Doc’s reputation? By suggesting in print - to the heart-clutching horror of a few people at the Sunday Times - that he singled out Tom Sawyer as the father of American literature. Any fool can tell you it was Huck Finn. How on Earth could anyone choose Tom Sawyer over Huck Finn - ? Answer: no one could, would, or, in fact, did. I actually knew this - spotted the error myself, in fact, after the fact - but for some reason I didn’t write it.


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The Testament of Gideon Mack

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Gideon Mack

by James Robertson
Penguin/Hamish Hamilton

reviewed by Ben Oswest

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the 12 November 2006 Sunday Independent. Here’s the link for subscribers:

Strangely, I can’t find the original text of the review, before it was whittled down for newsprint - but what follows is the piece post the initial bout of whittling, which makes is slightly different from what appeared in the Independent (though still much truncated):

And on the third day he rose again. Gideon Mack, that is: the Scottish minister who set the North Sea hamlet of Monimaskit briefly aflame with scandal when, having fallen into the Keldo Water and been presumed irretrievably drowned for half a week, he miraculously reappeared, claiming it was the Devil himself that had saved him. Further, Auld Nick was now his friend. This is what passes for the premise of James Robertson’s new but rather worn novel, at least, and what’s interesting about it is that it’s laid out in full in the prologue – a sure clue that something’s up.


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Henrietta Rose-Innes introduces The New Suffolk Hymnbook

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

As promised, here is the text of the speech introducing The New Suffolk Hymnbook that left me rather flustered last Wednesday. Thanks again, Henrietta.

Notes on The New Suffolk Hymnbook by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Some months ago, Gus Ferguson gave me a copy of he New Suffolk Hymnbook, saying that he thought I would like it. I was a little nervous (what if I didn’t? what would I say to Gus?), and for a long time put it aside unread. But every now and then I would glance at its dreamy, sub-marine cover. Eventually I took it with me to a North Sea island, where, trapped in a heat wave in a suitably otherworldly state of mind, I read it. And was delighted to discover writing as dreamlike and compelling as the angels and sea creatures that float on the cover. I never did tell Gus what I thought of the book, and so I was glad when Ben gave me the chance to do so by asking me to introduce him tonight.


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Heat

Sunday, October 15th, 2006

Heat

by Bill Buford

reviewed by Ben Oswest

This review appeared in edited form in the 8 Oct 06 Sunday Independent. Here’s the link (subscribers only):

And here’s the full review:

Of the many accusations that it’s possible to level against The New Yorker magazine, where Bill Buford was the fiction editor until quite recently – that it is nakedly snobbish; that it keeps a bloodshot, rather cynical weather eye on the Arab world in its Middle East reporting; or that it smugly publishes, with maddening regularity, some of the best English writing on the planet – a denunciation that it’s “machoâ€? isn’t one of them. The New Yorker is for nakedly snobbish cynics who enjoy the best English writing on the planet. Macho it’s not. And that, it seems, turned out to be a problem for Bill Buford.


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Green Man Festival 2006

Saturday, October 14th, 2006

As promised, here is my full, four-act piece on the Green Man Festival, which was originally published in edited form by PopMatters.com.

The 2006 Green Man Festival Reviewed

Wintering in Wales: A Love Story

The weather followed us into the Northern Hemisphere. As we careened around the back roads of Abergavenny and Merthyr Tydfil, the joy of the previous night still running at high temperatures in our brains and the dewy, drossy hills of the Brecon Beacons national park crowding the road, I had to switch, for the umpteenth time on this foray into the heart of the British summer, our little Ford’s wipers from “intervalâ€? to “high,â€? and squint to catch the oncoming signs and markers. Granted, these Welsh showers were nothing like the downpours we had left behind in Cape Town – which had brought destructive flooding to the coast and snowdrifts deep enough to shut the mountain passes – but still, we were wearing scarves, there were two pairs of mud-caked Wellies in the boot, it was August, and the heat was on.

My companion fiddled with the radio. Nothing could compare with the sweet music that had kept us sleepless until the diminutive o’clocks of that Sunday morning, however, so Radio 1 and BBC Cymru were silenced. We rode on, through towns with names like “Bwlchâ€?, and allowed ourselves to feel like conquering heroes.

Bwlch
Bwlch


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The Follower

Monday, October 9th, 2006

by Damon Galgut

notes by Ben Oswest

In May 2002, while housesitting for friends, I came across an unpublished manuscript by Damon Galgut called “Free Fall or Flight”, which I duly read, with no small sense - quite thrilling! - of doing something illicit. The piece has since appeared, in shortened form, in The Paris Review (issue 174, summer 2005), under the title “The Follower”. In it, a character called “Damon”, who is both narrator and object of narration, embarks on two long walks with a German man he hardly knows, with consequences that shake each to their foundations. The story’s final form isn’t so different from the draft as to obviate my original impressions - it is an innovative and highly accomplished work - a few of which I reproduce here:


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Review of The New Suffolk Hymnbook in Die Volksblad

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2006

Blomefontein’s Afrikaans daily, Die Volksblad, published a review of my novel on Sept. 11th (while I was writing about satyagraha), under the title “Boek lewer belangrike bydrae tot diversiteit”. This translates roughly as “Book furnishes important contribution to diversity” - here’s the link:

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Review of The New Suffolk Hymnbook: Jacqui L’Ange

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

The New Suffolk Hymnbook

The New Suffolk Hymbook

by Ben Oswest

Your perceptions of meaning and self will be challenged by this read

A lot of books wrestle with the idea of meaning, the eternal quest to understand. Ben Oswest’s book may well be one of them. But I’m not entirely sure.

This is the challenge and the delight of the book, the paradox that it plays with inside its covers (I think), delivered amidst a most blindingly dazzling display of wordsmithery. Who cares what he is saying, when he says it so brilliantly?


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Hav

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

Hav_01.jpg

a novel, comprising Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmidons
by Jan Morris

reviewed by Ben Oswest

The 20 August 06 Sunday Independent originally published this review, in slightly edited form.

Here it is in full:


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Green-Eyed Thieves

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

Green-Eyed Thieves

by Imraan Coovadia
Umuzi, 2006

reviewed by Ben Oswest

Coovadia’s latest novel is the “book of the week” in today’s Sunday Times; I wrote the review, which the paper published in slightly-edited form.

Here’s the review in full:

Of the many astute observations tossed out with offhand dexterity in Imraan Coovadia’s Green-Eyed Thieves, one of the most telling is the remark from the novel’s main character – the aptly-named Firoze Peer – that “It’s a defining trait of great villains… to flourish in death.” The “great villain” Peer refers to is none other than Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker on September 11, 2001, and, posthumously, a personality flourishing in the imaginations of dozens of writers, including John Updike and Martin Amis.


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Mandela’s Ego

Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

Mandela's Ego

by Lewis Nkosi
Umuzi, 2006

reviewed by Ben Oswest

At one of their halts (August 18), the expedition left behind: the ashes of the night fire… the leg bones of a springbok… Fecal matter, blood, pus… Semen (all).
- JM Coetzee, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee”, Dusklands

Despite Africa’s large, often unrecognised, literary wealth (its robust oral traditions; its poetry and proverbs; ancient writings like the Timbuktu Manuscripts; the more recent tradition of fine playwrights and novelists), African “master texts” are few and far between. For writing in the West, the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes and others supply a vast, rich - and tamed - metaphorical space for new works to resound in, their own meanings amplified by echoes from the past. Modern African literature enjoys no such milieu - but what Africa lacks in great texts, it makes up for with a powerfully symbolic pantheon of great men, the continent’s liberators, who loom so large in the popular imagination that they are themselves like great texts, their lives of struggle and triumph echoing with as much force here as, say, The Odyssey in imagined Europe.

This would explain autobiography’s prominence in contemporary African literature: the need for the great men’s lives to be made into books underscores a larger project of making independence permanent, of bolting the fact of liberation securely down into world history. In effect, then, the autobiographies of great men stand in as Africa’s master texts - and among them none can be accounted more weighty, more foundational, than Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

Enter Lewis Nkosi, who, with Mandela’s Ego, rushes in like a literary David to contest the Goliath autobiography’s claim to the territory of the African imagination.
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The New Suffolk Hymnbook Considered

Sunday, July 9th, 2006

Today’s Sunday Independent ran a review, by the South African poet Ingrid de Kok, of The New Suffolk Hymnbook (Jacana/Snail Press, 2006), which was based on her introduction of the novel at its 19 June Cape Town Book Fair launch. The review is available online to the Independent’s subscribers only - click here for the story if you subscribe - but here is the full text of de Kok’s original speech:

The New Suffolk Hymnbook Considered
by Ingrid de Kok

It is a pleasure to be participating in the launch of The New Suffolk Hymnbook. I read Ben Oswest’s novel some years ago in manuscript form, and thought then that it was a startling and unique achievement. On a second reading, I feel even more intrigued and impressed. I can’t pretend to claim that I entirely understand this radical book - but I think one of the purposes of the book is to confront the very idea of “entire understanding” . At the same time as it engages us every step of its way, the book questions the solidity of its own surfaces and the nature of its own evidence. It dislodges expectation and leaves one half knowing, half confused, as if in a dream whose meaning is elusive but full of portents.


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Excerpt from The New Suffolk Hymnbook - “Jane”

Saturday, July 8th, 2006

Here is the second of the two excerpts mentioned in the previous post:


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Excerpt from The New Suffolk Hymnbook - “Piety”

Tuesday, July 4th, 2006

Today’s Cape Times published an excerpt from my novel in its Review section, running the first few pages of Chapter One (”Jonah“). The Review ’s headline, “Fascinating novel takes look at scholastic life”, is somewhat off-target, given a conventional reading of the term “scholastic” - but I clearly can’t have any quibbles with the phrase’s other adjective.

The Review is unfortunately not online, so can’t be linked to. The newspaper paper had three excerpts to choose from; here is one of the two that weren’t published:


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Sunday Times Opinion Piece

Sunday, July 2nd, 2006

The Sunday Times has published a piece of mine on the South African English literary marketplace - it appeared today, on p. 21 of the second section (”Insight”).

For anyone looking for the text of the speech that Ingrid de Kok gave at the launch of my novel, I’ve temporarily “unpublished” it, so she can re-work it as a review for another Sunday newspaper. As soon as it’s been published, I’ll re-post the text. (Update - 9 July - I’ve republished it - click here.)

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The Persistence of Memory

Thursday, May 18th, 2006

The Persistence of Memory

by Tony Eprile

reviewed by Ben Oswest.

From the United States, an unexpected literary challenge has landed on South Africa’s doorstep, in the form of Tony Eprile’s novel, The Persistence of Memory. It was published in 2003 by WW Norton, and here by Double Storey in 2004. Eprile is an expatriate South African who now lives in the US state of Vermont, and it might be said that, as a future writer, he had one of the most auspicious upbringings South Africa could have bestowed: his father was an editor of Drum; he grew up in the company of the roisterous Matshikizas, Thembas and Nakasas; he can tell authentic stories about seeing Nelson Mandela during the furtive “Black Pimpernel” days. His novel’s title is thus something of a double entendre, referring not only to the “poisoned gift” of photographic memory which torments its main character, but also to the feelings of its author for the land of his birth.


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