Book review – Magical and authentic

2015-04-12 15:00

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What Will People Say?

Rehana Rossouw

Jacana Media

R220 from

331 pages


Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say is not a work of nonfiction, despite her formidable 30 years of journalism experience. Instead, she has stretched her wings and written fiction.

Her debut novel is one of the finest books I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Rossouw manages to at once pull the reader back to the mid-1980s Cape Flats, with all its political difficulties, and tell an honest, sincere story about a family and its personal struggles.

Drawing on childhood memories, she picks out the detail, sights and sounds, and has created a fictional world that becomes more real with every page you turn.

“As an activist, I knocked on doors in Hanover Park, urging people to come to meetings and protests. I drew heavily on my own experience of growing up in a tight family and watchful community. But none of the characters is real; not one of them is me – it’s all fiction,” she says.

The story centres on the members of the Fourie family living in Hanover Park in the 1980s. Though it is about the family as a unit, each member experiences this world differently.

There is Nicky, the bright and dutiful younger sister, grappling with her role in the politics of the day. Her sister, Sunette, sees her family as a weight on her, blocking her from her dreams of stardom. And Anthony, the youngest, is lured into the world of gangs, first with enthusiasm, but as the book draws on, with an increasing sense of terror. And of course, their parents, trying to do the best for their family, but in very different ways.

“There is no chief protagonist; the book’s about the entire family. In my first draft, the delinquents took up all the space. The bad guys tend to be more compelling than the good daughter who goes to church every Sunday. When I rewrote the book, I gave each character their fair share, their own lives,” she says.

Her characters are all incredibly nuanced. No one is clearly a hero or villain and much of the emotional investment as a reader stems from feeling conflicted about how one responds to the more difficult characters. In particular, the gangster Ougat presents a moral dilemma, presented as both a father to many in the community and a ruthless criminal.

“The gangsters were among the most successful entrepreneurs in the townships, offering hope-starved young people a chance to engage in business. All of it illegal. They dispensed generosity as readily as they doled out justice for the smallest slights against them. I kept the real names of the gangs that were active in Hanover Park in the 1980s and are still rooted there today. The leader of the Americans, Jackie Lonte, is the only real-life person in my book,” says Rossouw.

The magic lies in the authenticity of every element in the book. Writing from a personal place often makes it easy to rely on memory and familiarity. That’s not the case here. Every carefully crafted metaphor, chapter break and twist in the tale is meticulously placed to serve the story. And beyond this incredible technical ability, the novel retains the truth of the society it is reflecting.

“The book is written in Cape Flats English – and there are no apologies with italics and a glossary. I want to give my readers a taste of what it was like back then on the Cape Flats in 1986.

“Everyone who has a family may recognise how they support you, drag you down at times but always love you, no matter how different or pathetic you are,” says Rossouw.

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