A damaged hero

2011-06-22 00:00

IN her acknowledgements at the start of this novel, the author says she owes her story to watching Paul Slabolepszy performing his moving, poignant single-hander, The Return of Elvis du Pisanie . She uses a similar setting: the West Rand mining towns of the fifties, and, like Paul Slab, she aims for an elegiac note in a rough, edgy setting for her coming-of-age tale.

Her protagonists are Chris and Tommy, 12-year-old sons of white miners. Their lives revolve around the dubious delights of their “cave” in an old mine dump, learning to box, and rock ‘n roll. Insulated in apartheid South Africa — which is a backdrop to rather than a major player in this tale — they are amazed when they discover that some of their musical heroes are in fact black. Theirs is not a privileged childhood, but there are freedoms and fun to be had.

However, Chris, who narrates the bulk of the novel, comes to see in Tommy an anger and a danger that sets him apart from most of their mates. Tommy has a little sister, of whom he is protective, and a vicious, bullying father. And ultimately, the toxic elements of his life will bring an end to childhood.

Published in the United Kingdom, Liebenberg’s novel needs a seven-page glossary to explicate the slang of the times for her readers. And even South Africans may need to use it. This, and the switching of narrators, gives the book a jerkiness that can irritate, and makes the narrative a little challenging to follow. But by the end, which is both shocking and moving, the reader is firmly in Chris’s corner. He may not be an Elvis du Pisanie, but he is a decent, damaged hero.

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