Alice Otto is unquestionably the matriarch on Elizabeth Street, where those with big dreams and dashed hopes end up Every day is a battle against constant change, but not until now, recognizing in herself the symptoms her grandfather once faced, has Alice encountered a change she cannot combatFor decades Alice Otto has known every squatter and dweller on Elizabeth Street, and on most days she remembers their names—every Bart, Lila, Gerty, Michael, and Steve Bart has written a book, stories about all of them, and Lila, long married, has moved overseas Gerty is dead, Michael never left, and for a decade nobody has heard a thing from SteveWhen Steve unexpectedly returns to Elizabeth Street, Alice takes great comfort in the fact, and as their bond deepens very little stands in their way as they spiral together into hopelessness Alice yearns for things remembered, and clings to Bart Steyn's book, the line between fact and fiction growing increasingly indistinct, while Steve longs for the love he once shared with MichaelBrimming with heart and gentle humor, and not wasting a single word, The Thing About Alice is a study in character no reader will easily forget Omgggggg when I go to buy it and it isnt even released 🤦 lol I look forward to reading it and will definitely pre order when it's time !! Whether or not the author intended it, Elizabeth Street shares a common heritage with Barbary Lane Both are the kind of gentrified microcosms representative of a select interpretation of life in a particular fixed historic period that is deeply suspect in our highly fractured and overpoliticised present.There is an Elizabeth Street in Wonderboom in Pretoria, but I have no idea if this is mere coincidence Us Johannesburgers remain deeply suspicious of Pretorians, and consider anything beyond the vague geographical boundaries of the City of Gold as being the sociocultural equivalent of the Deep South in the US.In addition, the author is deliberately vague as to what ‘period’ the book takes place in Clearly, it is some kind of a time capsule:On one occasion she read to Steve and he said that he didn’t think Elizabeth Street as Bart described it ever really existed He mustn’t talk like that, she said in response, that what was written in that book was what would be remembered about them in the end, when all was said and done, and Steve never dared utter such blasphemy again.And then there is this:The corners of Bart’s book, sitting on the table in front of her, were beginning to curl, and she thought that perhaps if she could manage to mend it, Elizabeth Street would stop falling apart around her as well.The bookwithinabook is, of course, Opal Street: Stories, which contains “stories about all of them, those who had lived on Elizabeth Street then.” The tense here is deliberate and crucial; I didn’t realise it until the tender and haunting final chapter, simply entitled ‘Alice’ While this book is cast firmly in the ‘realist’ fiction tradition, the concluding chapter elevates it into something quite special.What also fascinates me about this book is the impact of the author’s experience as an immigrant Swanepoel’s bio states that he was born in Pretoria, but now lives in California with his partner There is another story there, of course, and one which bleeds through into The Thing About Alice As Margaret Atwood once said: “In the end, we’ll all become stories.”I am constantly amazed at the ongoing evolution of South African fiction (and yes, I’m proud to appropriate this excellent book as an example of the metamorphosis of our literary tradition) Swanepoel reminds me of edgy writers like S J Naude who explore this amorphous territory about what constitutes South Africanness and being the ‘other’ in another part of the world, especially given our country’s history of colonialism, institutionalised segregation and racism, and now in the modern era what one would term political factionalism, for want of a better phrase.There will be readers who bristle at this book’s apparent lack of serious political intent, and who will attribute it to a position of white privilege But for me it raises evenfascinating questions about the personal versus the political Politics is farthan rhetoric; it is lived history, as Alice experiences in Elizabeth Street around her And, indeed, as we all do in whatever community we inhabit.I loved the specificity of the writing (though there are a few niggling snags, such as referring to Botanic Gardens and then Botanic Garden a page or two later) Swanepoel’s description of Pretoria is evocative, as anyone who lives there can attest to: “She could only imagine what it looked like in spring, when all the jacaranda trees were in bloom Or during a thunderstorm when streaks of lightning lit up the heavens far beyond.” (And, yes, please note Johannesburg also has jacaranda trees.)Of course, the key to any good book is that it speaks directly to the reader (which is perhaps one of the hardest feats for a writer, because it is so often the aspect most beyond the writer’s control) What really brought this book home for me was a wonderful description early on:She climbed out of bed and clipclopped her way down the hall Most of the wooden blocks comprising the floor in the hallway had come loose, and it wasn’t uncommon for one to stick to her foot and lift right out of place, especially after she had had a bath.I live in a house in Kensington, one of the oldest suburbs in Johannesburg, where the parquet flooring has slowly come loose over the years, like the fraying pieces of a puzzle, and blocks will often stick to one’s feet I feel like it is the house’s way of talking to me, of reminding me of its own history and eccentricities And then when I sit outside on the front verandah, I suddenly realise that Elizabeth Street is right there, in front of me. In less than 150 pages the writer tried cramming in way too many characters which made it hard to keep them straight, muchless get to know them The book was too hard to wrap yourself up in. The depiction of a small enclave of friends, with the only constant being Alice who has lived there for years witnessing the turn around, the comings and going, but finding herself giving in to the effects of aging Very difficult for a person who always had control The characters are definite, beautifully realized, and sympathetic Hard to believe this is a debut it is so well written.
- 144 pages
- The Thing About Alice
- Jean-Luke Swanepoel
- 17 February 2018 Jean-Luke Swanepoel