Top Five: South African Books

Top Five: South African Books

One of the most wonderful outcomes of the "new" South Africa is the abundance of new writing over the past 20 years across age groups and genres. Much of it remains in South Africa as it is a struggle for local writers to get representation internationally but there is a wealth of talent and an abundance of stories to be told. Growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of books I read were set in faraway countries I could barely imagine (I pictured Covent Garden as a space of rolling lawns and perfectly manicured flower beds!) One of the aspects of winning the Branford Boase award that makes me most proud is that a South African story gets to be told and read in bookshops and libraries very far from home. This is my personal pick of books set in South Africa.

Leopold Blue by Rosie Rowell, the winner of the 2015 Branford Boase award, is out now (Hot Key, £6.99).

  1. 1

    Don’t Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller

    Okay, so I’m beginning with a cheat. This book is set in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, not South Africa, but I had to include it.

    "Mum says, ‘Don’t come creeping into our room at night.’ 
    They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, ‘Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.’ 
    ‘Why not?’ 
    ‘We might shoot you.’ 
    ‘Oh.’ 
    ‘By mistake.’"

    These opening lines transport you to a family caught up in the Rhodesian civil war where survival is daily routine; a family full of eccentricities and contradictions and heartache; and a world which is warm and gritty and as real as the earth. It is a captivating mixture of funny and brutal. And as a writer I was entranced by Fuller’s style of dialogue in this book.

  2. 2

    Every Secret Thing by Gillian Slovo

    Gillian Slovo has written many beautiful books, but Every Secret Thing is my favourite. It is a memoir of her childhood. Gillian’s parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, were icons of the anti-apartheid struggle and intimately involved in bringing down the oppressive regime. It is much more than a fascinating insight into the turbulent time in South Africa’s history - it is a beautifully told memoir of a child of two great people, who was always on the outside of her parents’ activities, who always came second to her parents’ ideology. The struggle of a child who knows that her parents are doing good things, but resents those activities for having a stronger claim on their parent’s time and energy, is something I tried to capture in Meg in Leopold Blue.

  3. 3

    Coconut by Kopano Matlwa

    In my view Matlwa is South Africa’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her writing is alive and authentic and the authority with which she writes is wonderful. Coconut is her first novel. It is a story of the struggle for identity of two black teenage girls; one who grows up in the white affluent suburbs, and another who has grown up in the townships. The different worlds rubbing along side by side, and the differences and similarities in the two girls’ struggles make for a great book.

  4. 4

    Pops and the Nearly Dead by Edyth Bulbring

    Young adult literature doesn’t exist in South Africa in the same way it does in the UK and America but this is a brilliant book and deserves to be compared with some of the best YA writing available. I picked it up by chance in a bookshop in Cape Town a couple of years ago and laughed out loud the whole way through it. It tells the story of Randolph, who is sent to live with his grandfather in a retirement village. The story is told with such warmth and humour that the words just dance on the page.

  5. 5

    Long Lies the Shadow by Gerda Pearce

    I met Gerda by chance on a creative writing course in London many years ago. Being able to share work with a fellow South African brought back the heat and the touch and taste of home. Long Lies the Shadow tracks the lasting effects of the apartheid regime on the tangled lives of a close-knit group of friends. It is also a fantastic thriller. Pearce has the rare gift of being able to write beautifully poetic prose combined with cracking plot lines, something I am in awe of.