Archive | July, 2017

Van has finished reading… Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa

7 Jul

evening primrose

The prosaic title, the soft pink background and the lush green foliage of the cover give nothing away. It’s a book that makes you smile to look at it. But, oh, how there are teeth in the grass. Nothing prepared me for what was between the boards.

Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose tells the story of Masechaba. Inflicted with health issues at a young age she undergoes drastic surgery to rectify the problem and fosters the dream of becoming a doctor. When she achieves her dream the reality of being a junior Doctor in South Africa’s beleaguered state health care system proves to be very different from what she imagined. And when she takes a stand the attention she receives is very different from what she might have expected.

The story unfolds through a succession of undated journal entries, an excellent device to bring us right up close to Masechaba. It’s almost a conversation with God and it really pays off as events take turn and turn again, her faith is tested and the singular nature of her thoughts, prayers and confessions recede in the face of events. It actually left me breathless at times, stunned. I could only shake my head at things that, for so many reasons, I am never likely to have to deal with. Politics, social disparity, organised religion and deep-rooted folklore all come into focus as Masechaba talks to God, and sometimes doesn’t talk to God, and sometimes shouts at God, setting down her thoughts and feelings, examining what is ceded to a higher power.

Unstintingly honest, time and again the motive for her actions is a personal one first, with the benefit or consequence to others coming as a secondary realisation. The characterisation is perfect, with motivation and action always in harmony, and it’s impossible not to feel for Masechaba as she faces what life throws at her, albeit those motivations are so consistently inward-looking. There’s something irresistible in that voice; perhaps it’s the honesty of purpose we should all see in ourselves…

And what of hope, at the close of the story? Is this a cycle set to repeat with each generation, or is it hope that is the gift of the future?


It’s not a long book – just 150 pages – but the writing is excellent, spare and yet flowing and vociferous. Witness phrases like ‘Our people’. When that phrase arises you’re never in any doubt as to who ‘our people’ are. Two little words that say so much, can encompass so much but it’s always about the restriction, always about who’s not included, the focus always on the ‘our’ and never on the people. That’s good writing.

Some books you can read and feel their power and understand that they are fiction. Some you can read and feel their power and their possibility and think, thank God they are fiction. And then there are books like this. You read and you feel their power but you don’t think, Thank God it’s fiction because it’s not their possibility but their probability that you feel. Although they are fiction they are born of fact. This thing you’ve read has happened, happens, is happening and will continue to happen. And all its power increases.

Press this book into people’s hands. Tell everybody you know. It needs to be read.


Evening Primrose is published by Sceptre on the 27th July 2017 ISBN: 9781473662261

Kopano can be found on Twitter @kopanomabaso

My thanks to Veronique Norton at Sceptre for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

4 Jul

The Author’s note at the back of my copy of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music begins with the line, ‘Music to me is dearer even than speech’. I read this after finishing the book and it made me wonder whether Vikram Seth actually talks like this, and that in turn made me wonder about Michael and Julia and Piers and Billy and Helen. Would they talk like this?

Of course it’s a moot point because Vikram Seth chose to write that line. His words, composed to convey his feelings. Yet to me it sounded like an echo. That could so easily have been Michael or Piers. Julia? Maybe (Helen or Billy I think not). What it underlined – and I know it’s a little off-piste for this blog to look at the negative side of things, but indulge me – having read the whole book is that the characters didn’t quite ring true for me. Perhaps it’s that they spent so much time in each other’s company. Perhaps it’s that their life really is so much about music that there’s room for little else. Perhaps it’s that the music they spend so much time with is at least a century removed but in the end they felt to me a little like shades of the same character, and that they’d all be quite at home in a Dickensian parlour.

Where the story really does work for me is in its relationship to music. If you know classical music, and particularly the pieces mentioned in the book then I think you’ll get a great deal more out of it (If you don’t there is apparently a cd available so you can bone up). I’m at that level where I was able to recognise the joke about the string quartet looking like Beethoven’s famous opening to the fifth. I do make a noise with a guitar though, and love listening to music and that’s enough to connect with the quartet and how they feel when they’re playing. Take the music out of the story and the story is strong enough to stand on its own. Take the music aspect and the author attempt to convey something of that mystery that is experiencing listening to, playing, performing music and it’s an admirable attempt to put words in place of notes. In the early pages I had the sense that it might be a kindred read with Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes, though that really is the highest of bars where both writing and writing about music is concerned; the fact that I made that connection is suggestion enough that An Equal Music is readable, understandable and enjoyable.


An Equal Music was published by Phoenix in 1999 ISBN:9780753807736