Book Reviews: Hiding The Wolf, Or Transit To An Inland Universe

February 17, 2021

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Hiding In The Light by Rifqa Bary

Die Heimat Projek by Andrè de Villiè

War Of The Wolf by Bernard Cornwell

Transit To Heaven by Salma Said Ali

Arrows Of The Universe by Patrick McGaffin

Inland by Te’a  Obreht


Rifqa Bary is a young woman who began life in Sri Lanka as part of a devout Muslim family, observing daily rituals and seasonal feasts and fasts. After losing an eye as a small girl in a play accident and being abused by an uncle, she became less than whole in her parents’ sight. A sudden decision to emigrate to the United States seems to have stemmed at least in part from that disgrace. We have a vivid account of life first in Queens, New York, and then to Ohio. Here Rifqa met at school and in the neighbourhood children from different faiths and with different experiences of the world. Already facing doubts about her family faith, and wearied by her father’s frequent rages and her mother’s increasingly restrictive behaviour, she begins actively to seek understanding of what new friends believe. Here begins a life of subterfuge as she spends more and more time in the home of a Christian friend, going to church and becoming involved in Christian fellowship, hoping to keep her new faith a secret from her family until she is 18. This is not to happen, and she decides to flee home, crossing state borders and finding safety in Florida. Here follows a gruelling passage as her family seek to force her home though legal action. A variety of players including lawyers and politicians become involved. Hiding In The Light is a wonderful study of a personal conversion, of persecution and hardship. It I also a fascinating account of the way in which the legal system operates in dealing with a minor who is escaping the strictures of a fundamentalist family. It is not a  polemic against Islam or Muslims, but a personal story. – RH


After an absence of 30 years, Konrad Geyer, an engineer working in Germany, returns to South Africa.  He is sent by his company to investigate business potential and Research and Development opportunities relating to pharmaceutical products and the exploration of rare earth minerals. This mission takes him through the country, visiting sites and meeting people. The story starts here as a kind of travelogue, which makes exciting reading.  How does Konrad experience the changes that have taken place in our country? All aspects of life from politics to economics, ecology, moral issues, attitudes, comments, impressions, the challenges and mistakes, opportunities and failures, are covered. Die Heimat Projek is a kaleidoscope of our society, present and future. Familiar things have changed or gone, leaving a touch of nostalgic feelings. The reality of us living like emigrants in an entirely new country is beautifully portrayed by de Villiè, including possibilities for a new future. This book offers a fascinating blend of historical facts and fiction, to open your mind about a new South Africa. – DB


War Of The Wolf is set in Northumbria in the late 9th Century BC, the time of King Edward of Wessex, who was extending his grip on all of what would become England, the lands of the Angles and Saxons, and bringing a new order after the Viking invasions. His tumultuous reign is the framework for this tale, a combat between three lesser kings. This is the 11th in a series of “Tales” but it stands on its own, and having read it before any of the others, I am determined to acquire and read the rest, though that will be a mighty task. Uhtred tells the tale, Uhtred who holds fast to his pagan beliefs, who lost his father as a young boy, grew up under the protection of a great warrior, and who is now Lord of Bebbanburg, a great fortress which dominates Nothumbria. He is a formidable warrior. While he rejects the overlordship of that Christian dynasty,  he is known as a valuable ally or a frightening foe. And so he is drawn into conflicts not of his choosing. There is a greater and more immediate threat from a warlord named Skoll, who leads an army of great savagery; “wolf-men” who go into battle half-crazed with drugs and beliefs. The story is intriguing, telling of treachery, betrayal, great fidelity and extraordinary courage and determination. We move through a countryside ravaged by marauding forces, knowing that tonight’s allies may well be massacred or tortured for the hospitality they offered. The intrigues of the court, the rapacious bishops and the terrified populace, the tensions between Christian and Pagan, and the episodes when Christians fight Christians and Vikings fight Vikings. This is a gripping narrative, recreating a time of huge uncertainty, multiple conflicts for the bodies and minds of the ordinary people and the territories they occupy. It demands close reading and yet carries the reader on to the final battle. A magnificent climax. – RH


Transit To Heaven is the testimony of a woman born into a Muslim family in Zanzibar. She trained as a primary school teacher, but married into a large and traditional Muslim family. This family believed in arranged marriages, and she had not been their choice of bride for their son. This this is the story of the enmity and persecution that followed. We read of her divorce and remarriage, migration to England and establishing herself in the English education system, and a second divorce. When she progressed to lecturing at a teacher training college, one of her students, Rod, began to discuss his Christian faith with her, contrasting it with her Muslim beliefs. This was an ongoing dialogue, which brought about questions and probing on her part. Then she received several “revelations” in the form of dreams. Discussing these with Rod led ultimately to her conversion. What followed was a time she describes as ‘tribulations’, including demonic threats to her family, marriage failure and bankruptcy. Having come through all this and holding fast to her new faith she believed it was time that she went back to her family in Zanzibar to speak to them about her conversion. This is indeed the most informative and challenging part of the book. I believe this is worth reading because it delves into the conversion and faith of someone not within the Western tradition. There are aspects of religious experience that are related to a very different culture and tradition. – RH


Arrows Of The Universe is set in South Africa in the period of transition following the release of Nelson Mandela. Justin Marshall is a contractor, building homes for the affluent in the suburbs of Johannesburg. He lives in the country not far from Sandton with his wife Caitlin  and daughter Nikki, adjacent to a magnificent estate, Beaulieu. He attempts to raise the funds to buy and develop Beaulieu as a housing estate, an enterprise bitterly opposed by Caitlin. Nikki is crippled when a horse falls on her and this changes the course of events. Principally, this is the story of how Justin buys a property in the Lowveld, adjacent to Kruger, where he builds a game farm with tourist facilities, especially horse-riding among big game, and where he can care for Nikki. It is also the story of a series of encounters with women, his divorce from Caitlin and his relationship with Melanie, daughter of a horse-breeder from the Karoo. There are many episodes of sexual encounters, each described in detail and rather too much conjecture. There is a parade of bush lore as he learns to cope with the farm and acquires a herd of elephants. There are vividly described encounters with the wild. Ultimately, there is a building of tensions in the strange and new environment, a changing political scene, ancient rural beliefs and the demands of modern Western lifestyles. It ends in a drawn-out narrative of disillusionment, betrayal and death. The storyline is good. The prose is readable. The philosophising is irritating. The novel is too long, 893 pages in all. The narrative is used to parade knowledge of the bush, philosophy, physics, politics, and views on the nature of human relationships. I can imagine that editors tried hard to cut the verbiage and shorten the book but found stubborn resistance. As it is self-published, the author may have had the last several thousand words. – RH


There are two streams of story in Inland by Te’a  Obreht, each complete in itself, which finally flow into one another. The first is set in Arizona in the late 19th Century, drought-stricken territory that makes enormous demands on the intrepid souls who venture to settle there. Nora is married to Emmett, bright, visionary, educated and totally unequipped to live the life of a settler, editing and publishing the local newspaper. There are three sons, the two older boys are near adulthood, both adamantly men – Rob the visionary, Dolan the hard facts man, and the youngest, Toby, only a child, sadly in ill-health and without sight in one eye, but a questing, inquisitive imaginative boy. Her mother-in-law, paralysed by a stroke, lives a moribund life with them. And then there is a hireling, Josie, a seer, who lives in to help with nursing and with chores. Called on to hold séances  and conjure up the dead, she is incapable of the one useful gift – divining water. The tale commences when there is a terrible drought. At this time, Amargo, the local town, is also the county seat, but its status and its economic existence is being threatened by a proposed move of the seat to Ash River. Nora’s neighbour and friend, Desma, is a  farmer whose land is under threat from an encroaching cattle baron. Emmett has disappeared. He had gone off ostensibly in pursuit of a business opportunity, leaving the boys to run the daily. There is no word from him and the anxiety, tensions and conflicts that arise from simply seeking to survive make a fascinating story. Threaded through this is Toby’s insistence that there is a strange creature down at the creek. This is a fascinating account of hardship, the outcomes of border warfare, the sort of characters who survived and conquered, those who failed and disappeared and those who simply lived on as dependents. The second story is one of equal or worse hardship: the account of a young refugee  from the Levantine, Lurie, whose perilous journeys and heartbreaking losses finally bring him to New York. He finds lodging and employment as assistant to a body-snatcher, gets caught up with a roughneck prize fighter, becomes a member of his outlawed gang and is wanted by the law. He is on the run, and falls in with a camel train: pack animals to accompany troops on the move into the desert lands. This is a vivid account of pioneering, of scattered settlements, of lawlessness and escape and death in unforgiving terrain. It is the account of the relationship between extraordinary men and between Lurie and his camel, which ultimately is his partner in survival and in escape from his own ghosts. The two streams ultimately become one. This is certainly a book to be read for its narrative quality but also to deepen understanding of the America of today. – RH

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