Reflecting on life, transience and loss

2008-11-19 00:00

Despite its readability and range, despite its frequently teasing tone and the tensions of the tale, despite its harvest of accolades and awards (in the original Afrikaans version), The Book of Happenstance is an uneven novel, the usually fluent, buoyant voice stalled by insertions of encyclopaedic information and some unconvincing conversations in question-and-lecture mode.

In a narrative that is essentially unresolved, the protagonist (and presumably the writer herself) states her belief in unbelief: her sense of the indifference of the universe and the insignificance of humankind; her understanding that coincidence has shaped the human form and characterises human life; her awareness of transience — and, by extension, of loss and grief. Yet, despite her credo, she is not without reverence for the beauty of creation, manifested most notably for her in the magnificent shells which she collects and in which she finds both solace and strength. It is the theft and violation of these shells that drives much of the narrative and the narrator’s thinking.

Helena Verbloem is a lexicographer who is employed in March of a given year by one, Theo Verwey, to assist him in the final stages of an ambitious project. After meticulous research, he has gathered a host of Afrikaans words and phrases that have become obsolete and he intends, after further sorting and sifting, to publish a dictionary of these words and their etymologies. The two work in an office in the museum in Durban, and, when not busy recording the meanings and origins of words, they interact with a colourful group of colleagues employed in various capacities at the museum and conduct their individual private lives.

Helena’s life is destabilised in May by the ransacking of her home, the theft of her shells and her subsequent frustrated attempts to recover them. There is also the intrusion of a persistent telephone-caller who acts as an aide-mémoire to her past, though she barely recalls him. She is further disturbed in October when she discovers Verwey dead at his desk.

This is not to reveal too much. Winterbach opens her novel with the information of Helena’s employment and Verwey’s death. March and October. In this way, she immediately establishes interest and intrigue. The reader takes the bait.

Despite its readability and range, despite its frequently teasing tone and the tensions of the tale, despite its harvest of accolades and awards (in the original Afrikaans version), The Book of Happenstance is an uneven novel, the usually fluent, buoyant voice stalled by insertions of encyclopaedic information and some unconvincing conversations in question-and-lecture mode.

In a narrative that is essentially unresolved, the protagonist (and presumably the writer herself) states her belief in unbelief: her sense of the indifference of the universe and the insignificance of humankind; her understanding that coincidence has shaped the human form and characterises human life; her awareness of transience — and, by extension, of loss and grief. Yet, despite her credo, she is not without reverence for the beauty of creation, manifested most notably for her in the magnificent shells which she collects and in which she finds both solace and strength. It is the theft and violation of these shells that drives much of the narrative and the narrator’s thinking.

Helena Verbloem is a lexicographer who is employed in March of a given year by one, Theo Verwey, to assist him in the final stages of an ambitious project. After meticulous research, he has gathered a host of Afrikaans words and phrases that have become obsolete and he intends, after further sorting and sifting, to publish a dictionary of these words and their etymologies. The two work in an office in the museum in Durban, and, when not busy recording the meanings and origins of words, they interact with a colourful group of colleagues employed in various capacities at the museum and conduct their individual private lives.

Helena’s life is destabilised in May by the ransacking of her home, the theft of her shells and her subsequent frustrated attempts to recover them. There is also the intrusion of a persistent telephone-caller who acts as an aide-mémoire to her past, though she barely recalls him. She is further disturbed in October when she discovers Verwey dead at his desk.

This is not to reveal too much. Winterbach opens her novel with the information of Helena’s employment and Verwey’s death. March and October. In this way, she immediately establishes interest and intrigue. The reader takes the bait.

Moira Lovell

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