Honest and compelling

2012-11-14 00:00


Thinking up a Hurricane

Martinique Stilwell

Penguin Books


WHEN she was a mere seven years old, author Martinique Stillwell’s father, who had spent most of his adult life working as an electrician in the foundries of land-locked Benoni, suddenly announced to his family that he had decided life was too short to spend it all living in a house, and that he intended follow his dream of circumnavigating the world.

The fact that his experience of the sea was limited to a few trips in a ski-boat in no way served as a deterrent.

Cashing in his moderate savings, he purchased the Vingila, a battered old yacht with a steel hull, and after a brief sojourn in Durban, where he tried to familiarise himself with its workings, he and his family put out to sea.

Setting off across the Atlantic, via St Helena and Ascension Island, their journey would take them to some of the most remote corners of the Earth and expose them to many dangers and hardships.

For the most part, they lived a hand-to-mouth existence — catching fish where they could or existing on what they could scrounge off the many islands they visited.

When his money ran out, Stillwell’s father simply looked for work (or in one instance resorted to whisky smuggling) and once he had saved enough moved on again.

With childhood memoirs of this sort, there is always the danger of them becoming soporific or just plain self-indulgent.

However, Stillwell is definitely a poster girl for home schooling, because Thinking up a Hurricane is neither twee nor unchallenging, nor does she gloss over her more painful memories.

As she grew older, her relationship with her father, who did not tolerate dissent and had trouble showing affection, became increasingly strained.

After seven years of living a vagabond existence on the high seas, she finally decided she had had enough of his prickly temperament.

She manages to persuade her stoical, if long-suffering, mother to buy her an air ticket back to South Africa, so that she could resume the life of a normal schoolgirl.

Frank, honest and extremely well-written, Stillwell’s unsentimental and compelling memoir blends colourful tales from her storm-tossed upbringing with her later life at Alberton High School, where she was victimised by her classmates for being “different”. Her unusual, sometimes heartbreaking relationship with her parents is presented with humour and intelligence.


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