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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Praise for Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns

Lost Ground, the latest from Michiel Heyns, was released by Jonathan Ball this month. There are very many reasons to recommend it, but here are my favourites:

1. While there are plenty of writers with a gift for satire, very few care, or have the ability to blend compassion with their humour. In satire, one has to resist the (usually very tempting) urge to sketch caricatures; Heyns avoids this pitfall with aplomb. While the dreadful Aunt Dolly, for instance, is “a great hypochondriac on behalf of her whole family”, whose “vocation in life it is to feel slighted”, a woman who likes to make her disapproval known by subtle but strong means (“She has always called me Pieter [instead of Peter], I suspect as a rear-guard action against her sister’s defection from the volk”) she is also, as the protagonist later points out, a woman bereft, a woman who has lost her child. Her what-will-people-think veneer cracks in a scene where her husband tries to chase our protagonist, Peter, out of the house and she pleads for him to stay, seeing that he’s her “only sister’s only son” and that he looks so much like Desirée, her murdered daughter.
2. Below all the hilarity lurks an air of tragedy. Of course, someone has been murdered, which in itself is an unhappy state of events, but as the mystery is solved, indeed, because it is solved, further tragedy unfolds … This is so much more than a whodunit.
3. The style is a remarkable combination of erudite and accessible. How many writers can achieve that?
4. There is the striking character of Bennie, with his naïve faith and his initial hero-worshipping of Peter, who is, at the time, so young and ignorant of the effect he has on this friend that he casually forgets him in his time abroad. Bennie is simple, but surprisingly complex, with shades of Fanie from The Children’s Day’s (see Tension: Home vs the outside world).
5. Razor-sharp satire. An example, from the mouth of the very same Aunt Dolly: “They say nothing makes people as insecure as not understanding.” The “they” are the “them” to whom she gestures with her crochet needle “in the general direction of the street”, but of course she can’t recognise that her own greatest insecurities rest on exactly the lack of understanding she’s pointing out.
6. It’s wildly entertaining, and I suspect that it will delight a very wide range of readers. En dit wil gedoen wees.
7. Plenty of dogs!
8. The wry and side-splitting observations just keep coming … Here’s an example: “Aunt Dolly is crocheting a shapeless object. Her house is full of crocheted creations of vague function and identity; my mother used to say Dolly crocheted on the wait-and-see-principle.”
9. Heyns is a stickler for apostrophes, but admits that in Alfredville, as in the rest of the world, they’re a lost cause – a fact, sad but true.
10. With his dry humour, self-deprecating wit and gentle manners, Heyns speaks as entertainingly as he writes, which makes his launches and (I would assume) his readings a treat – more reason to look forward to this year’s Franschhoek Lit Fest, where he’ll be talking, amongst other things, about the state of literary reviews in SA. Hmm, hot topic? You don’t say.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    April 30th, 2011 @21:05 #

    I particularly enjoy reading reviews like this -- "Ten things I loved about X book" or similar. I get a better sense of the book, and (given the whole hoary review debate), this layout makes the reviewer's preferences and personal viewpoint explicit (see No. 7!). Feels more intimate, more trustable. Thanks, Maya.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    May 1st, 2011 @12:26 #

    Thanks Helen, and yes, it's a very satisfying form of presentation for the, if not reviewer, then, commentator. I must give Colleen Higgs the credit for the format though – she was the first I saw using it in this forum.


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