Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “growing up”

Outcast (book review)

The OutcastThe Outcast by Sadie Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book follows Lewis Aldridge’s life from the age of 7, when his father returns from the Second World War, to the age of 19. He grows up in an upper-middle-class commuter village in Surrey, where the fathers commute to to work in London, and the mothers supervise the servants and occasionally visit each other.

The children of the neighbourhood play and fight with each other. They go out for bike rides. and walk in the woods together, but Lewis feels increasingly cut off from them and from the adult world as well. The only exception is youngest of the neighbouring children, Kit Carmichael, who is four years younger than Lewis, but is secretly in love with him.

While the novel focuses on Lewis as the protagonist, I felt most strongly for Kit, and my heart ached for her. Perhaps that was because she was the same age as me, and I could measure her life against mine, though I think I liked Elvis Presley more than she did, but I could forgive her that. If one can measure the success of a novel by the extent to which readers identify and empathise with the characters, then this one succeeds.

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This river awakens: puberty in a messed-up world

This River AwakensThis River Awakens by Steven Erikson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Until about halfway through this book, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it or not. It’s about a bunch of kids aged about 12 or 13 living in an in-between place somewhere between the city and farmlands. I lived in such a place when I was that age, so to that extent it felt familiar, but I wasn’t aware of the existence of such a bunch of messed-up people. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t there in the place where I grew up, just that I wasn’t aware of them. And I wouldn’t have dared to talk to my teachers the way those kids did.

The protagonist is one of the kids, Owen Brand, who has just moved to the area and so has to make friends from scratch, and one of the things that is rather confusing is that his viewpoint is in the first person, while the others are in the third person, but when he is just with one other person, and the viewpoint switches, one somtimes loses track of who is talking.

The messed-up people are just about everyone, friends, neighbours, teachers, family members. Part of the interest of the story is how Owen learns to cope with this, and how he and his family help to improve things for his girlfiend, who has an abusive father and an abused mother, and has learned to cope with adults by keeping them at arm’s length.

So there are good things to balance out the bad things, and nothing’s perfect, but that’s true to life too. In some ways Owen seems to represent the idea of coinherence of Charles Williams, with people taking on the burdens of others. Williams appeared to think that people could or would do this consciously and deliberately, but Owen does it almost unconsciously. And the kids are faced with things like sex, drugs and death, to the consternation of teachers, doctors and social workers, who are often just as messed up as everyone else.

In the end I liked the book, and liked it a lot. Perhaps I’ll read it again, because it’s the kind of book where there are lots of things you don’t see on the first reading, and perhaps not on the second or the third either.

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The white shadow: an African Bildungsroman

The White ShadowThe White Shadow by Andrea Eames

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe’s Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was it as long ago as that? And the author wasn’t even born then.

Tinashe is a young Shona boy who grows up in a rural village, ocasionally visited by his rich uncle from the city and his cousin. He dreams of going to school and university, like his uncle, but his cousin doesn’t seem to value these things. Tinashe’s younger sister, Hazvinei, is strange, and communes with spirits. Her brother, and other people, sometimes find her rather frightening, but he feels obliged to care for her, even when it threatens to disrupt his education.

In some ways it is like an African version of David Copperfield or The catcher in the rye, but it is also bound up with the surreal and unpredictabe world of Shona mythology, where the spirits can make people feel invincible at one moment and dash all their hopes the next.

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Growing up in Durban

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie — a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I’d just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn’t on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don’t feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me — she referred to the university as “uni”, an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the “uni” today, but in my — our– time it was always “varsity”. Another term I don’t remember using at that period is “airhead”, though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against “liberals” and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because they’re against integration”. It was just the opposite of the usual complaint — that liberals were against segregation — so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that’s an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn’t identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys’ boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls’ day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a “coming of age” novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I’m rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.


[1] Woozer – a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

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