Book Reviews: Fall Into A Gap, Or Wanderers Under Shelter

June 21, 2020

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If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie

The Cookbook by Your Family

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

A Gap In The Hedge by Johan Vlok Louw

Shelter Rock by MP Miles


An extraordinary coming-of-age story, If I Fall, If I Die is set in a forgotten Canadian backwater that was once an important node in the shipping of grain from the country’s vast interior to the rest of the world. The ruined dreams of those who had once relied on that trade is reflected in the town’s shattered infrastructure – it’s a set-up John Irving might have created for one of his bizarre tales. Such is the context in which a young boy named Will must define his character, though his task is further complicated by a complicated home situation. His mother is, for many reasons that are unpacked throughout the narrative, a shut-in with a range of conditions, most notably depression, that make it impossible for her to function normally. Unsurprisingly, Will is socially awkward, but in that space, the reader is able to get to know the character well, and the sensitivity Christie gives his creation is lovingly unpacked. As Will begins to discover that there is more to the world than the restricted range occupied by his mother, he is guided by a fellow outsider, Jonah. The pair face off against a number of adversaries, from schoolyard prejudice to local gangsters, in a story that’s quirky enough to intrigue by real enough to convince. – BD


There are hundreds of cookbooks released every year, most of them with an exotic angle designed to make them stand out from the crowd, be that the culinary traditions of a particular country or the reputation of a celebrity chef. The Cookbook is more old-fashioned in the best way, designed to be a go-to guide for everyday family food that will be used until each page is greasy and dog-eared rather than only brought out when there are dinner guests to impress. As such, the sections it is divided into are useful and expedient – soups and stews, dishes that can be prepared in half an hour, “one-dish wonders” and ideas for particularly healthy meals – and the recipes are short and simple. Opposite each recipe is a picture of how the dish should look if you’ve done it right. This is a great option for cooks looking for good practical guidelines. – BD


Three astronauts have been selected for a simulated journey to Mars and back, a journey which in reality will take not far off three years, but is now condensed to 16-and-a-half months. This is a simulation of extraordinary verisimilitude, which will test and examine the capabilities not only of the space vehicles and the equipment, but also of the three human beings. Helen Kane is an American, the most seasoned and the eldest. She leads the team. Sergei Kuznetsov is Russian and Yoshi Tanaka is Japanese. Each brings different qualities and each has been selected because of their perceived ability to form part of a close-knit, heavily interdependent team. Each has close family: Helen Kane is a widow with an adult daughter who is emotionally dependent on her; Sergei is amicably divorced and has two teenage sons who are close to him; and Yoshi has a wife who is brilliant in her own field – robotics. This is the story of three intellectually able individuals conscious who are being tested and monitored at an unusual depth, each hoping to be selected for the real journey, each with strong ties to the ‘real world’, and each feeling and thinking at levels which are out of reach of any external monitoring, minds playing cat-and- mouse. Overriding all other considerations are the excitement of space and the lure of the unknown, the possibility of an experience beyond that of any other human beings. Even though this a simulation, it is a journey into the outer reaches of one’s own abilities. Each close family member is challenged in unique ways, conscious of living in the shadow of a very special person, cut off from actual contact but needing reassurance and support. The stories of these individuals are told with empathy and acute observation of the human condition. The Wanderers is a cerebral masterpiece. I am unable to assess the scientific accuracy, but obviously it is hugely well researched. Only here and there does it come to life. It remains a carefully considered and hugely clever work. – RH


A dark and compelling book, A Gap In The Hedge plays out in two adjacent houses, a distance from the nearest town, and on a hill above the town. The dramatis personae are few, even when the police appear. And the first of those personae does not know who he is. He wakes up in a strange house, unable to recall anything of his past, and able to find few clues in his meagre possessions, in the car in the garage, in a pistol and in a bag of money. Gradually, he settles into this strange house, making of it a place to live, though it is never home. He makes forays into the little dorp, but lives like a recluse. He gives himself the name Karl. He is conscious of a house beyond a thick, overgrown hedge, a house identical to his, though seemingly devoid of life. Until one day an elderly car stops outside the house and disgorges a man, a woman and a boy. He still keeps his distance and maintains his privacy. He observes the family over days and weeks. The man is hard-bitten and tough and drives off to town on unknown missions. The woman is simply there, but sometimes accompanies the man. The boy is a frightened creature. Then one day the boy appears through a gap in the hedge. This is the beginning of a tentative relationship, a friendship, even. An excursion into the town to buy gardening equipment and food is a major adventure for the boy, and full of fear. The boy reveals little, but is obviously hungry both for food and company. Then Karl discovers the first of the secrets bound up in this boy. And now as one episode follows another, the mysteries begin to take shape and form and ends in an horrendous climax of discovery. The prose is tough and terse – sparse even. It is a well-crafted book, a real contribution to contemporary South African literature. – RH


Shelter Rock is set principally in the early 1980s and the period of the greatest threats to the apartheid state in South Africa. There is an elaborate attempt to persuade foreign powers that the country possesses both nuclear capability and the means to deliver a missile. Various agencies are involved, along with some extraordinary personalities. Having gone back into earlier parts of the narrative, I was – late in the novel – still unable to unravel the complexities of the plots and counterplots. However, they seemed to become less and less relevant as the book is principally about young English visitor to South Africa who has a brief affair with a young woman who it transpires is in the early stages of HIV/AIDS. She is deeply impressed by him and decides to make him a beneficiary of her will, bequeathing him a very considerable sum of money. He, unaware of this bequest and bored with simply being a visitor, takes off on a long hike that will eventually take him all the way through Africa – principally footslogging, but occasionally by road or rail transport and with a few flights. Granted that the author made this trip himself at some time, I find it hard to give credence to many of the episodes. Crossing borders, walking through remote areas and managing to avoid many pitfalls, he finally arrives in Egypt. However, he is unaware that a rogue agent of the South African secret services is tailing him intent on his assassination while a “good guy” has been commissioned to protect him. Whether the reader will find the story credible or not, the chief problem is the endless commentary on the politics, history and sociology of the different territories the boy crosses. A novelist will sometimes need to give some background knowledge to assist the reader. Here the plot is a poor excuse for the  “explanations”. It is rather like listening to an incredibly boring expat holding forth in a pub. Not a book I’d recommend. – RH[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]