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“Uneasy” is the word for the feeling I was left with when I put the book down – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Son

This review was originally published in The Witness

SOUTH African writer (and New Zealand resident) Neil Sonnekus tackles a tricky theme in this novel – what it means to be a white man in South Africa.

I have mentioned the author’s current home because emigration is a decision his central character, Len, wrestles with in the book and it’s not hard to see some personal connection between writer and character.

Len is a sub-editor on a Johannesburg newspaper in the Thabo Mbeki era. Recently divorced, he spends a good deal of his non-working time in pursuit of sex, usually with limited success. His attitude to women is deeply misogynistic, just as his attitude to his ancient father, who he reluctantly visits every weekend, is, at least at the outset of the novel, pretty unsympathetic. In fact, Len’s disconnect from the world around him is more or less total, though he does relate to his dog.

Sonnekus deals with the racial and sexual politics of South Africa in what is often a very amusing but also a melancholy way. The reader feels Len’s increasing despair, but also comes to see that his situation is not radically new: as he delves into his father’s past as a soldier and prisoner of war in Italy and as a policeman in apartheid South Africa, we begin to see similarities, not only between the two men but also between their lives.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the book moves with increasing speed – there are times in the first half where Len’s morbidly funny sex life and his sparring matches with his father seem to be going nowhere – to a shocking climax. Out of it comes, for Len at least, a degree of self-discovery and the possibility of a kind of peace, but it is only an uneasy one.

And uneasy is the word for the feeling I was left with when I put the book down.

Neil Sonnekus’s exploration of the role of Len Bezuidenhout in the angry, violent and intolerant society that South Africa seems to be becoming offers little to comfort the reader, even at the end. - Margaret von Klemperer


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