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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Review: Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok

I reviewed Rachel Zadok’s brilliant novel Sister-Sister for the Cape Times recently. Here’s the full review text:

Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok, Kwela Books, 2013

The world has always been fascinated by twins. It is as if people expect that the sharing of a womb leads to a magic lifelong bond, a secret language between two soulmates. And so it is between Thuli and Sindi, until the fateful day on which a stranger arrives on their doorstep. He brings with him what Thuli calls “Something Bad”, although of course these words are not nearly sinister enough for the events he will unleash. But first he opens the eavesdropping Sindi’s eyes to the fact that not everybody views the magic of twins as benevolent. Sindi, the silent one, who got, it seems, the wrong name.

Sister Sister Densely written, rich in symbolism and imagery, Sister-Sister is one of the year’s most important books. It offers a number of heart-wrenching surprises, which make it particularly difficult to review: Simply discussing the most important themes gives away too much of the plot, but rest assured: the themes are relevant and riveting. And what one can say with confidence is that Zadok deftly and sensitively approaches her themes in a spell-binding, original way.

Part speculative fiction, part magic realism, part very much realism, the novel holds up a mirror to harsh social realities, the power of jealousy and the destructiveness of stigma and superstition, as well as illustrating how superstition and religion can be intertwined. The fragmented presentation of time, dream sequences, magical descriptions, stream of consciousness and changes of perspective call for slow, attentive reading, but the patient reader is richly rewarded.

Sister-Sister has a strong South African flavour, and is set in the not too distant future, mostly in Johannesburg with scenes in rural KwaZulu-Natal and Durban. The earth has been ravaged by climate change: the Midlands are in the grip of a devastating drought, while Durban sports a New South Beach due to rising sea levels. An energy crisis has led to the outlawing of petrol cars and a thriving industry in biodiesel, often home-brewed. Yet the TV still runs Omo ads, and the schedule includes current favourites such as Generations, Isidingo and Star Trek, which makes the events that much more discomforting. It’s easy to sit back and read something set so far into the future that you can set your mind at ease that the things on the page will never happen, but the fact is that many of these things are already happening. Once again, this is difficult to discuss without giving away the plot, but the point is that these chilling things are a reality today, it’s widely known that they happen, while no one seems to be able to, or want to, stop them.

Zadok delivers prose of high quality with strikingly original metaphors and images. Her verbs, especially, shine: People “leak” from rooms, dawn “filters through manholes”, sunshine “spotlights” the floor and light “[bleeds] through a crack in the drawn curtain”. At one point the twins’ mother has eyes “like fermented fruit” and someone else paints her toenails “the colour of scabs”. While making for fascinating reading, the language underpins the magic of the story, and the personifying verbs add to the mood of animist realism.

As one of the opening quotes suggests, Ben Okri’s Booker-prize-winning The Famished Road (1991) is an important intertext to Sister-Sister. Zadok pays homage to the Nigerian author in the character of Ben, angel-faced Nigerian worker at Joe’s Pit Stop, who frequently chants his “Emi, oru, abiku, O”. (Spoiler alert: If you’ve not yet read the book, skip the rest of this paragraph.) Zadok deftly handles the narration and perspective of her own abiku, or spirit child, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the very fact that we are seeing through the eyes of the dead remains hidden until late into the text. Of course it makes for an effective surprise, but also allows Thuli as narrator the omnipresence that the average third-person narrator lacks.

In Thuli and Sindi, Zadok has created marvellous, credible characters, children that seem completely real, and for whom you feel tremendous compassion, but also alarm, and, at times, anger. On the one hand they are sweet, vulnerable children, on the other hand little shoplifting scoundrels, Thuli proud and precocious, Sindi jealous and bitter. And then, as writers from William Golding to Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood have demonstrated about children before, they are capable of truly sinister actions. Even so, the overriding feeling evoked in the reader is that of compassion.

Sister-Sister delves into the issues of shame, blame, stigma, salvation, desperation, afterlives (and/or haunting), the vulnerability of children, their innocence and the tragic consequences of naivety. At the same time, it explores childish cruelty: the fact that they are often not nearly as innocent as we’d like to imagine, yet innocent enough to be swallowed up in the most destructive superstition. It is for the reader to decide where salvation lies.

More about Sister-Sister here.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    March 18th, 2014 @23:55 #

    Another review that does both the author and the reviewer credit. I am already getting knobbly knuckles from crossing my fingers for the ST shortlist...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    March 20th, 2014 @13:21 #

    Thanks Helen! Yes, I'm with you about that shortlist.


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