Book Reviews

8 favourite South African writers, for your Christmas stocking

Updated Friday, 26 May 2017

I first connected with South African fiction when I read Etienne van Heerden’s The Long Silence of Mario Salviati, and was hooked. If you consider it was 2002, it took me rather a long time to get there. Since then I’ve read much and often.

Here is a list of my 8 favourite South African writers, in no particular order. Any of their books make great holiday reads, or gifts…

Etienne van Heerden

That Etienne van Heerden’s father was a merino farmer in the Karoo comes as no surprise. Many of his novels, particularly Leap Year and The Long Silence of Mario Salviati, are set in the Karoo. His writing is gorgeous, poetical and stirring, and many of his novels deal with the influence of family, race, and the individual against the group. His rich voice, and the way he explores personal relationships and identity make his stories compulsive reading. Whilst his novels are not overtly political, other than Casspirs and Campari, the past looms in the background of all his stories.

Of interest: he also writes both poetry and cabaret songs, and was one of a group of Afrikaans writers to secretly meet with the then banned ANC at the Victoria Falls Writers’ Conference during the eighties.

Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes is only 38 years old, and already has four novels under her belt, has won the Arthur C Clarke Award and The Kitschies Red Tentacle for Zoo City, and is adapting the same novel as a screenplay for use in a movie (you can hear that I think she’s remarkable). She writes what is described as ‘twisty fiction’ to explore the world, using fantasy, science fiction, and murder mystery genres. Whilst her first two novels were set in Cape Town and Johannesburg, her most recent success, Broken Monsters, is set in America, and has brought her global appeal.

Of interest: she wrote a graphic novel with artist Inaki Miranda, and directed the documentary Glitterboys & Ganglands that won best LGBT film at the San Diego Black Film Festival.

Marita van der Vyver

I’ve read as many of Marita van der Vyver’s novels as I can lay my hands on. Even if she now lives in France, she remains one of my favourite South African authors. Since her Griet skryf ‘n Sprokie won the ATKV, M-Net and Eugene Marais prizes (it was to create controversy amongst Afrikaans speaking people), Marita van der Vyver has written an array of books that includes Breathing Space, Travelling Light, There is a Season, Time Out, and Just Dessert, Dear (those are just the ones I’ve read).

Of interest: Griet skryf ‘n Sprokie has also been translated into Icelandic (amongst many other languages); Marita van der Vyver made a guest appearance in 7de Laan in 2005; and she cites Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates as influential.

Damon Galgut

I still have Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, his fifth novel about two vastly different men in a rural hospital post-apartheid, on my bookshelf. It went on to win him the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was shortlisted for two other international awards. His work is not feel-good reading. His characters are intense, the atmosphere bordering on gloomy, but the writing and the stories are so compelling that you finish the book anyway.

Of interest: he was just 17 when he published his first novel, A Sinless Season; he has written a novel called The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, about a young white man in the military service who suffers a nervous breakdown. He is also a playwright.

Achmat Dangor

Achmat Dangor describes himself as an ‘African with Asian and Dutch blood in me, I don’t know what race I am, and I don’t care’. He says, about his most important novels Bitter Fruit (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), and Kafka’s Curse (for which he won the Bosman Prize) that he writes because he has to, and because he loves to. He is, however, not only a writer. He also served as CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, was interim director of the World AIDS Campaign, and founding executive director of the Kagiso Trust. He has written seven works of fiction and poetry. His latest release, in May 2013, was Strange Pilgrimages.

Of interest: not all his heroes are black, and not all the villains white; Bitter Fruit’s progress has been described as ‘slow dancing'(I highly recommend it).

Marlene van Niekerk

Anyone who manages to anger South Africa’s government with a poem, entitled Mud School, is worth reading, in my books. The poem that starts, ‘Minister Motshekga, your name is mud’ has caused much contention. But it was her book, Agaat (which won a Sunday Times Literary Prize), that I found particularly fascinating, and uncomfortable to read. The book is about a 67-year-old white woman and her coloured maidservant turned caretaker. I couldn’t put it down (Michiel Heyns’ translation won the Sol Plaatje Prize for Translation). Marlene van Niekerk is best known for Triomf – controversial descriptions of a poor Afrikaner family in post-apartheid society.

Of interest: she went to school in Riviersonderend and Stellenbosch, and is now a Professor in Afrikaans and Dutch at Stellenbosch University

Barbara Trapido

Strictly speaking Barbara Trapido has lived in England for longer than she has lived in South Africa, but she is South African nonetheless. Her books Brother of the More Famous Jack, Temples of Delight, Juggling, Noah’s Ark, Frankie and Stankie (more of a memoir than a novel) and, most recently, Sex and Stravinsky, are wonderful (four of them are connected, but you don’t have to read them in any order). She has, unsurprisingly, an avid following in the UK; her agility at dialogue and detail is a joy, her books are unexpected, light in spirit and laugh-out-loud funny.

Of interest: Barbara Trapido and her husband moved to the UK in 1963 just after Mandela was arrested; she lives in Oxford.

Zoë Wicomb

Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, is the collection of short stories that first brought her international attention, despite its release during the apartheid era, and the only of her books I have read. Her more recent novel, Living in The Light is about ‘play whites’, those coloureds in South Africa who ‘turned’ white during apartheid; a group of people who officially do not exist.

Of interest: She was born in Beeswater, near Vredendal, Namaqualand, but lives in Glasgow where she is Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde. She is self-effacing, does not talk much about her life, gives few interviews, and calls herself a ‘reluctant writer’.