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Margaret von Klemperer reviews Rehana Rossouw’s New Times

By Margaret von Klemperer for The Witness, 31/01/2018)

Rehana Rossouw’s glorious debut novel, What Will People Say? set a very high standard for her fiction career.

In New Times, her second novel, she has shifted the action forward nine years to 1995, Mandela’s second year as President and the time of the rugby World Cup. It was also when the first patches of tarnish began to stain the bloom of the rainbow nation – the silence over Aids, an economic vision that was not what many of the poor had longed for and hints of bribery and corruption in the top echelons of government.

Rossouw places her central character and narrator into this scenario. Ali (short for Aaliyah) Adams is a political journalist, starting a new job at a weekly paper, The New Times. Rossouw, writing here about something she knows well, is excellent on the atmosphere and internal politics of a busy newsroom – and this is important as the investigative stuff Ali is involved in is often complex and potentially indigestible in a fictional setting, and the human reality around Ali is necessary to keep the story moving.

The other very human strand is Ali’s home life in Bo-Kaap, where she lives with her mother, suffering from depression since the death of her husband, and her strong-minded grandmother, whose expectations of Ali are not something she can fulfil. As in her earlier novel, Rossouw draws a compelling and affectionate picture of a community with its own dynamics and characters.

There is a lot to like in this novel with Rossouw tackling a period when the idealism of the transition to democracy was taking its first hard knock. And in Ali, she has created a character who is going to have to face up to her own personal circumstances – living in a community where conformity is the watchword, particularly for women, is one problem. Hopes unfulfilled in both her own life and the wider society are taking their toll.

But Rossouw doesn’t always manage to mesh her themes successfully. As the political part of the novel veers perilously close to didacticism, in an effort to keep the storytelling lively Rossouw offers too many descriptive flourishes that tend to stop the reader in their tracks. Particularly towards the end of the book, the two strands of her story sit a trifle uneasily together.

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