Poignant and funny

2008-12-24 00:00

Twenty-five stories — unconventional, spare, often humorous and occasionally poignant — have been gathered from a miscellany of stage productions by South Africa’s Nataniël and adapted for the publication, When I Was.

The title relates directly to 17 of the pieces, each of which identifies a significant memory in the young life of the narrator, from When I was 7 to When I was 23. In these formative years a number of visitors — including a whacky aunt, a renegade cousin, a choir of privileged orphans with discernment in culinary matters and a halitoxic school friend — influence the views and development of the narrator. Certain key events — being persuaded, in the absence of sufficient female cousins, to be the sixth flower-girl at a family wedding; becoming anxious about his appearance, researching the notion of “genetic disasters” and resolving to wear make-up; being arrested and psychiatrically assessed for avoiding National Service — contribute to the shaping of his identity.

While some of the pieces are hilarious and some, a little sad, all are characterised by brevity and idiosyncratic freshness.

Wide-ranging in content and context, the remaining stories highlight human foibles, fears and frustrations, while continuing to reveal a considerable amount about the writer himself. In My Brother Fonzo, set in a circus, jealousy drives one of the performers to murderous intent, while the narrator, an incompetent magician, kills a succession of rabbits as he pulls them inexpertly out of hats.

In I Wear a Coat, Nataniël discusses his own penchant for costume and performance, while telling the story of a boy of troubled background who recites the Bible in his loneliness and is subsequently exploited by his usually absentee father when it is discovered that he has a mesmeric voice with the power to draw and excite masses. It is this hysteria which Nataniël is interested in — the uncontrolled, irrational responses of audiences to a given performer.

In The Hong Kong Kiss, the narrator travels in search of an elegant, handcrafted bowl. His musings on the aesthetics of bowls, the porcelain studio he visits and the imperative of leaving own turf for the unknown, combine — with his quirky humour — to create an effective story.

Accessible and entertaining, When I Was will engage and entertain

holiday readers.

Moira Lovell

• When I Was by Nataniël is on the Exclusive Books List for 2008.

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