Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar's giftThere’s a back story to this one. Once upon a time, now many years ago, a group of women writers, all friends online, came together over a feminist blog: What We Said. We were all involved with different kinds of writing; novels, short stories, nonfiction. Now one of our group has published her crime novel, Balthasar’s Gift, which is the first in a series featuring maverick journalist, Maggie Cloete.

The setting is South Africa, post-apartheid but before the turn of the millenium. Maggie is going about her normal business (chasing muggers on her motorcycle, in fact) when the call comes in: a shooting at the local AIDS mission. Maggie arrives to find a young man dying in the arms of the woman who runs the place, and it’s only when a passer-by knows the victim’s name, Balthasar Meiring, that Maggie realises she’s heard of him. A little while back he had called her on the phone, urging her to attend the court hearing of a class action against a doctor selling a fake cure for AIDS. Maggie had decided to pass the information onto her colleague at the paper who works on health issues, mostly because she was resisting the pressure Meiring seemed to want to put on her. And of course now, she regrets it.

While the general assumption is that his death is a robbery gone wrong, Maggie begins to suspect there’s a great deal more behind it. Following up on leads that she hides from her editor at the paper, she begins to believe that the two sides of Balthasar’s life have clashed: his private school friends, some of whom are now operating far too close to the limits of the law, and his work with AIDS sufferers, of whom there are escalating numbers. It’s the mid-90s and the government is reluctant to provide the drugs that could save thousands of lives, while the people react with fear and superstition. It’s a bad situation, ripe with all the urgency and exploitation that leads to murder.

Maggie is a terrific character: determined to be the alpha male in any situation, stubborn and provocative and with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but fundamentally it’s her tender side that gets her into trouble, undermining any professional distance she might try to have. She reminds me a whole lot of V. I. Warshawski.

But perhaps what I admired most in this novel is the setting of Pietermaritzburg. I’ve never been to South Africa and know very little about the country, but this story is so steeped in the atmosphere of place and time, I felt as if I’d been there. The best crime fiction doesn’t just tell a pacy, high-octane story, it also has a profound awareness of the social injustices and loopholes that create the right conditions for crime to flourish. I really admired this in Eva Dolan’s crime novel, Long Way Home, a few weeks back, and was again impressed by that same depth in Charlotte Otter’s.

I should also say that I read an early version of this novel, when Charlotte was first drafting it. It was a great read then, but now it’s amazing. Every scene is crisp, the transitions are smooth, the characterisation sharp and vivid, the story unfolds so neatly and lucidly… All too often I read books that feel a bit ragged still, as if they should have gone through another edit before reaching their readers. But this one is as slick and tough as a turbo engine. And finally, hard-boiled crime fiction has a new edge in the 21st century, led by women writers who marry uncompromising social insight with compassion. The old sisterhood would be justly proud to bits of Charlotte.

 

Last Minute on Friday

I am so sorry for my absence from the blogworld this week; things have just been really busy around here. But I’m hoping that next week will be a lot better.

I must just tell you a funny story, however. Earlier in the week, Mr Litlove had to go to the Groucho Club in London for a work do. He was approaching the entrance when he saw the footballer, Rio Ferdinand (? I know nothing about football and no need to enlighten me) going in ahead of him. Mr Litlove did not say so when telling me the anecdote, but I imagine he was so busy watching this guy that he tripped over the threshold. Noticing, he says, a lady behind him who in stature, hairstyle, etc, resembled one of his mother’s friends, he turned around and advised her to take care with the step (or I believe the way he jokingly phrased it was that he’d stumbled just to warn her of the possible danger) only to find it was Margaret from The Apprentice!*

That’s my boy; he falls over only in the very best company.

 

* The Apprentice, for those outside the UK, is a reality game show in which young people with personality disorders and a strong desire to appear on television compete in a series of staged entrepreneurial tasks for a ‘coveted’ place working with business mogul, Sir Alan Sugar, a man who seems to me to be the epitome of a nightmare boss. It’s best to erase the word ‘why?’ from your vocabulary when watching. Alan Sugar, when deciding who to hire and fire used to have two grey-haired and bespectacled henchman with him, one of whom was this Margaret. It has to be said that the henchmen provided a welcome burst of sanity and normality in an otherwise crazy parallel universe.

House Party

When I was a very small child and happened to be off school for the day, my mother and I would watch a television programme in the early afternoon that was called House Party. There would be one lady hosting and all her friends would come round and make stuff in different rooms of her house. In the dining room several people would club together over some raffia work or macrame. In the kitchen there’d be baking going on, and as a semi-permanent fixture in her lounge someone would be sticking seashells onto a lamp base. Seashells seemed to feature a lot; it was the seventies after all. I cannot tell you how much I loved this programme. I thought it was the height of sophistication and depicted an utterly desirable lifestyle.

Well here at Litlove Towers we have been enjoying a variation on the above theme for the past week, which might be described as House Party in the Internet Age. Mr Litlove is spending the week in New York for work purposes, and I can’t say I was looking forward to it. Apart from anything else, I find it very hard to sleep when he is away, and thought it was quite likely I could go for a whole week without speaking to anyone else in his absence. It just so happened that after he’d told me, the phone rang and it was my friend, Caz, and after moaning to her about his trip she said, ‘Would you like me to come and stay with you?’ Caz works from home too and we’ve been friends since we were 11, so she’s been through the chronic fatigue years and knows my little ways. Then my son got in touch to say he thought he’d come for a visit. And so we have been hanging out together with our various projects, sometimes one to a computer, sometimes employed in more unusual and eccentric ways.

See, Caz is a keen (and brilliant) photographer who likes to extend her skills whenever possible. At the start of the year, given that she never liked taking selfies, she set herself the challenge of a self portrait a day. When she arrived she said to me: ‘You’re not shy, are you?’ in a way that was evidently rhetorical, and so I have ended up taking part in them too. On Tuesday, I was very proud of us as we tackled the woodburning stove (usually Mr Litlove’s domain) and managed to get a fire started despite insufficient supplies of newspaper and cardboard. This gave Caz the idea for a face-down-Tuesday picture, which she set up before the eyes of my entirely unfazed son, who commented that he knew the ways of the internet and was therefore not surprised to see his mother’s friend gracing the carpet. I thought back to House Party and wondered how surprised those old party-goers would be to see how far we’ve come from the days of macrame and seashells for entertainment.

Yesterday was Adventures with Pumpkins day. Caz had brought her jack o’lantern with her and we spent a fair part of the afternoon carving the beast up and boiling two enormous pans of pumpkin cubes for the required mush. It’s that part of the recipe that says, ‘take 250g of pureed pumpkin’ without reminding you it requires three hours of work to even reach that stage of readiness. However, it did provide an occasion for another selfie. I grated some pumpkin for muffins that afternoon, and today or tomorrow we’ll bake a pie.

Mr Litlove has been skyping us around lunchtime (early morning for him in New York). Yesterday he had an all-day conference that began at 8.30 and ended with a party in the evening. He said there was an intriguing moment during the mid-morning break when a rapper had been commissioned to give a guest appearance. The first rap did apparently contain some appropriate words for those in the industry of targeted advertising, but the second was obviously more his own personal work about getting by in the ghetto, which Mr Litlove thought provided an interesting contrast to the business of the day. Mr Litlove had eaten his body weight in finger foods and sushi, without any more substantial meals passing before him, and the party had been a lot of people packed sardine-like and yelling at one another over the top of the loud music. He did sound rather hoarse this morning, it has to be said. Usually he has a ball on his work trips while I have a lonely, sleepless time. I could not help but feel that on this occasion, I had by far the better end of the deal with my house party, and we haven’t even begun with the seashells yet.

 

(You might also like to see Caz’s photo a day project, featuring some amazing details from the walks she’s been taking around the area.)

 

On Teaching Literature

The following is something I wrote initially for SNB before thinking that it really didn’t suit the magazine at all. And so I thought I might as well stick it up here!

The gradual erasure of literature from UK schools has been going on for some time and now the situation is set to worsen. Reforms to the exam system mean that from 2015 onwards, a new English language exam will make the teaching of literature optional for children up to sixteen years of age. It will be perfectly possible to get through a whole education without ever studying a well-known book in our own mother tongue.

I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught? For teaching literature can be full of pitfalls. When I was fifteen – a young girl who constantly had her nose stuck in a book at home – I hated the way we did it in school. What I adored was the feeling of being utterly caught up in a different world, lost to the twists and turns of a story. In the classroom we ‘read around the class’ a dull and painful exercise that took all immediacy from the words. Then we chopped the text up into little bits and studied them in a way that removed the natural connection between imagination and emotion. I understood the ambiguity of the stories, but felt too vulnerable myself to appreciate it. I needed a good teacher to stretch my emotional understanding, and that can be hard to do in a class of thirty students, all with different needs. Even all these years later, Shakespeare and Dickens remain two authors I cannot love, destroyed as they were by that old-fashioned teaching process.

When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.

Some of the answers came to me as I studied the interactions I had with my students. At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing. This made sense: studying literature is primarily an exercise in self-awareness. We are never more fully ourselves than in that private place where we read and – inevitably – judge. To protect that private place (and we do so fiercely), it seems right to insist that a personal opinion is obvious and universal, and to sidestep the challenge of alternative interpretations. And a good piece of literature will not provide the straightforward answers we often long for. Literature is not there to solve the problems of the world, but to give us a startling, enlightening glimpse of them in all their awkward complexity. What we feel about this draws on complicated emotions – some provoked by the story, some from personal history – and expressing either can be difficult to do.

For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side – forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful – they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.

Other problems arose: the students were quickly frustrated by the length of time their studies took. Couldn’t they watch the film adaptation, which would be so much quicker and less demanding? (No, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is NOT an accurate account of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.) Then they were upset by the troublesome assertion that there were no rules to essay writing, and by the confusion that arose out of differing interpretations. Why was it not so that all interpretations were equally valid? And if there were no rules to organising essays, why were their essays still criticised for structure?

Here they bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organise their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument. These things aren’t easy to do, and they eschew the sensationalism that our culture generally prioritises in stories, to such an extent now that to take the sensible approach sometimes felt wrong and disappointing to them.

This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.

This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.

Teaching literature has changed a lot since I was at school, and teachers nowadays do a fantastic job of finding ways to bring the magic and the subtle power of storytelling to children’s attention. My son, who was only really interested in computers during his schooldays, loved the Shakespeare he studied, and the Steinbeck and George Orwell’s 1984. These were books that if someone had asked me, his mother, I might have said they were too hard for him. But no, with the right teacher, any book is accessible. It gladdened my heart to think this part of him was being nurtured. Literature isn’t an easy option; surely if stories teach us anything, it’s that nothing worthwhile ever came quickly, simply or easily. But they offer us a kind of pleasure that can be intense and long lasting and a way of knowing the world that can’t be gained anywhere else.