Posted in Book Reviews

Away from the Dead – Book Oxygen Review

Away from the Dead by Karen Jennings
Published by Holland Park Press 24 September 2014
130pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

This slim volume, a collection of Karen Jennings’ short stories which have been published in various journals, immediately conjures up the sights, sounds and smells of Africa, and South Africa in particular. There is a deep sense of melancholy in all the stories, many of which concern people who have been displaced or feel out of step with their situations.
It opens with the title story about Isaac, an old man who has to leave the only home he has known and the cemetery where his family is buried as the land he has worked is being developed for luxury housing and a golf course. Alone, Isaac finds himself cut off from the only certainty he has left, that he will be buried next to his grandparents, parents, siblings, wife and children. He takes to the road with no idea of what to do next and tries to find work. However his age is held against him and he ends up sitting on his tattered cardboard suitcase wondering what to do next. Jennings carefully avoids sentimentality in her writing which serves to make Isaac’s story all the more moving.
The collection closes with ‘Resurrection’, the tale of a young father immobilized by the stresses of everyday life and his wife and son’s attempts to cure him. In between are more tales of ordinary Africans, scratching out a living while waiting for the changes promised by the end of apartheid to reach them. There is a short piece about the 2011 death of Andries Tatane, a young South African who was killed by police during a peaceful demonstration demanding jobs and better pay. ‘Muzungu’ is about a young white woman visiting Uganda who is mistaken for a foreigner. She struggles to explain she is not a muzungu but a South African on a trip to see the source of the Nile in Lake Victoria but finds that people have already decided who and what she is from the colour of her skin. Like many of the stories, it is subtle but telling. Jennings also includes some magic realism in the ‘Narrative of Emily Louw’, based on events as related by Emily herself, where Emily’s missing husband speaks to her in her dreams.
Jennings’ writing is evocative, bringing everyday existence in Africa alive with her sharp descriptions and intriguing characters. Some stories are very short, some are a snapshot of a moment in time, but all benefit from her precise observations of the minutiae of daily life and this imbues them with an sense of authenticity. The occasional use of Afrikaans words and phrases add to this. What links the stories is the sense of longing each of her characters feel; longing for a better life, a better job, a better spouse, a better country. The sadness that Africa, and South Africa especially, is still such an unequal society haunts every page but the lack of self-pity is admirable. This is a fine short story collection that shows a maturity belying the author’s relatively tender years.

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Posted in Book Reviews

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy – Independent on Sunday Review

For her third novel, Rachel Joyce has written a companion piece to her best-selling debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In that novel, after 20 years of silence, Miss Queenie Hennessy sent a note to Harold Fry, an old friend and work colleague, to inform him that she was in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed and dying. His surprising response was to tell her to wait for him as he set out to walk 627 miles from South Devon to see her.

While waiting for Harold, Queenie is persuaded by one of the nuns caring for her to write another letter to Harold, this time explaining what had led her to take up residence in Kingsbridge, where she met Harold, and what had made her leave so suddenly. It is a task that immediately lifts Queenie’s mood and so the story of how this very self-contained woman fell in love with the seemingly unremarkable Harold Fry unfolds in flashback.

Joyce has the knack of making even the most improbable premise feel perfectly plausible. Queenie is one of those people who always seem to cope with adversity but up close the fissures in her carefully constructed façade reveal a woman of deep passions who has led a lonely life. She never loses her sharp sense of humour and this makes her a gifted observer of the minutiae of everyday life. Her developing relationships with the nuns and some of the other patients reveal as much about Queenie as her long letter to Harold does. A young nun dedicates a corner of the day room to the postcards Harold sends as he traverses the country and soon the other patients are as eager as Queenie for Harold to reach the hospice. This provides some gently comic moments and pitch-perfect black humour that Joyce writes so well.

Queenie’s tale is all about the old-fashioned virtues of duty and loyalty, with personal feelings locked away for the greater good. It is also about the price paid for such sacrifice and asks if remaining silent is cowardice or perhaps true bravery.

Throughout, Harold Fry is the unseen presence whose strange journey has breathed new life into a small group of people slowly dying of boredom as well as disease. Harold’s enthusiasm encourages Queenie to open up to those around her and find moments of joy even as her life slips away. It is not necessary to read Harold’s story before reading Queenie’s to enjoy this bittersweet novel which is a pleasure in its own right. However, reading both will only serve to double that pleasure.