Tag Archives: Kopano Matlwa

My top 5 reads of 2017

10 Jan

It feels like 2017 was a strange year of reading for me. Having set out at the start with the intention of reading more I ended up reading fewer books than I did in 2016. I gave up on more books this year too and I wonder whether this was as a result of an awareness of reading time being more precious. That said, there were still books aplenty to enjoy, and a clutch I got really excited about. There were a couple of real standout titles in 2017 that I knew would be in my top five the moment I’d read them but, as ever, whittling the favourites down to five is not easy. Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat almost made it (I still can’t see an octopus without remembering…), and Jess Richards’ wonderfully lyrical City of Circles whose opening chapter is like a breath you can’t release. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island was a pleasure, sensitive and melancholy, and opening up a chapter of history that is little known. And then there was The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon, which Mrs Van loved as much as I did. I defy anyone not to fall for Tilly!

 

But down to business: March, the promise of spring and the first of my top five, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. One of Mrs Van’s favourites too, you really can’t beat a book that can make you laugh out loud, and Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows will do it over and over. Add to that excellent characters and a storyline that will make you look, and then look again at life and you’ve got a real winner on your hands.

 

The next of my top five came to me in June. A book that had been on my radar for a while, though I knew little about it beyond the title and the lovely cover, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected because I didn’t know before reading that it was a memoir, and also that it was so uplifting, its lyrical beauty a welcome counterpoint to that febrile sense that necessitated the writing of the book in the first place. Little wonder it won the Wainwright Prize in 2016.

 

From the Orkney Islands in June to South Africa in July and Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose blew me away. It’s not a big book – just 150 pages – but its punch is mighty! It’s interesting for me to realise that I read this the month following The Outrun too as these books feel similar in some ways, visceral and honest, spare and lyrical. There has to be a sense of truth in any book for it to really work but some books bear more truth than others. The truth in Evening Primrose is almost too much to bear. A stunning piece of work.

 

The international flavour continues in September, and it’s Japan this time for Alison Jean Lester’s Yuki Means Happiness. I can’t help but smile, remembering this book and the extraordinarily vivid rendering of little Yuki. It’s like going back to the adorable photos of the little ones in your own life. It’s that characterisation that really makes this book, connecting like a mainline straight to the heart so you feel everything that happens. This was another one that Mrs Van loved too, our favourites coinciding a lot more than in previous years.

 

Finally, November brought Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh. I think I would’ve known this would be in my top five even if I’d read it back in January. A lush and pretty proof with its purple velvet and gold lettering, it’s a treat and no mistake. Hands down, this is up there as Mrs Van’s favourite of the year – I started reading this one to Mrs Van and didn’t get a chance to finish it first. We raced through it in a single weekend. It’s absolutely gripping, an assault on the senses that I’d urge you to get your hands on, and you’ve not got long to wait now!

 

As for 2018, well things are looking pretty good already. After all, you’ve got the absolute delight that is The Wicked Cometh on its way, and there are second books from Fran Cooper (a review of which will follow shortly) and Anthony Trevelyan, both of whom produced stunning debuts (Fran’s excellent These Dividing Walls and Anthony’s sublime The Weightless World, both of which deserve to be very widely read). So here’s wishing you all health and happiness in 2018, and as much joy, heartbreak, adventure, fantasy and truth as you can find between the covers of the books you read.

 

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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.