Sunday, February 19, 2012

the last book I read

Frankie & Stankie by Barbara Trapido.

Dinah and Lisa de Bondt are two young sisters growing up in South Africa. Daughters of German parents, whose families fled Nazi-era Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War, they soon find that the family has exchanged one repressive regime for another, as their childhood sees the rise of apartheid.

As they move up through school the girls move through a series of best friends and favourite teachers, as girls do, which reflect their differing personalities - Lisa, despite having a gammy arm, is the outgoing robust type while skinny blond asthmatic Dinah is the delicate bookish one.

Eventually puberty and teenagerdom beckons, with all the messy business of menstruation and boys, but also a gradual realisation that they are in a little bubble of privilege which others, some of them people they see every day, are excluded from. Dinah's gradual political engagement is ramped up when she starts going out with Sam, who is a proper activist with links to all sorts of equal-rights campaigning groups and therefore a recipient of regular hassle from the police. Eventually Dinah and Sam decide that enough is enough and skip the country, emerging off the ship at Southampton in early 1964 optimistic of a new life.

Anyone who's read Trapido's earlier novels - my two are Brother Of The More Famous Jack and Juggling - will find this one a bit of a departure. The earlier two hads lots of stuff happening, but they were mostly about people, with all their fascinating frailties and foibles, and with most of the narrative drive being provided by their inter-relationships. Frankie & Stankie, on the other hand, is driven along by the history of South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, and, although there are lots of people in it, they have to take a back seat to the grand sweep of events. Lots of people come and go without the narrative ever really settling on one of them for long enough to get us interested in them - we get some background about the girls' grandparents and parents and their arrival in South Africa, lots of comings and goings with teachers and schoolfriends, and then a brief sequence of Dinah's boyfriends at the end before she hooks up with Sam.

Even Dinah and Lisa aren't terribly compelling characters - after the girls hit ten or so Lisa barely features in the book at all, and Dinah takes over as the single main protagonist, but even then we don't really get much of an idea about what makes her tick. For instance, she seems to fall into her relationship with Sam almost by accident, and is swept along by the consequences of his political activism (including the relocation to the UK) without ever engaging with it much. And some of the exposition about South African history, fascinating though it is, reads like it's been shoehorned in just because the author had done the research and didn't want it to go to waste, a bit like Neal Stephenson's Sumerian stuff.

This turns out not to be true, as it happens, and the book as a whole makes a great deal more sense when you realise that it's a lightly fictionalised work of autobiography, Sam for instance being a fictional version of Trapido's late husband Stanley. For all that, though, I'm not sure it really works, Trapido's light-hearted style and all the exposition about apartheid being somewhat awkward bedfellows, for one thing. And those big chunks of history leave precious little space for all the usual stuff that makes Barbara Trapido novels so enjoyable, i.e. all the little quirky human bits. So, admirable intentions and all that, but really if you want novels about apartheid then you probably ought to be reading something grittier like the couple of recent entries in this list, or something by JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer or André Brink. Conversely if you want a Barbara Trapido novel then I'd urge you to read Brother Of The More Famous Jack.

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