Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood
Along with a university colleague, Martin has developed an electronic device known as the Empathy Enhancer which, when electrodes are connected to the head, enables the user to read another’s mind. Amusingly, he tests it first on his dog, but his perspective shifts dramatically when he persuades Sibusiso to let him sample his brainwaves. While Martin gains some insight into what life is really like for the black majority, Sibusiso, via a contact at the teacher training college where he’s learning to question the official account of South African history, is becoming politicised.
Although I don’t read much science fiction, I do like a good dystopia, especially one with parallels to current sociopolitics, and I was keen to meet Martin van Deventer since discovering his creator’s experience of working as a clinical psychologist under apartheid when he guested for my blog series Psychologists Write. Martin’s struggles to be of help in a system in which most of the population is traumatised reminded me of Adrian in Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love.
The psychologist’s gradual awakening (akin to a professional coming-of-age) is well portrayed, especially in the early chapters in which his perception of the therapy sessions is contrasted with that of his client. And, as most therapists know all too well, he really isn’t so different from his client, an issue underlined in this novel through the parallel conflicts with distant and emotionally absent fathers.
Developing as a thriller through the powerful forces that want to get their hands on Martin’s invention, Nick Wood’s debut novel also explores power dynamics and the ethics of helping relationships within morally corrupt systems. The novel ends, appropriately, on the borderline between hope and despair, with some clever exploration of the space between dream and hallucination. Thanks to Newcon Press for my review copy.
Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa
As in the memoir, A Man of Good Hope, the violent attacks on foreign nationals are shocking (especially to the underinformed westerner who’s bought into the dream of the rainbow nation). Believing that God would not permit too much atrocity, Masechaba is forced to act when she realises (p44):
I’m a coward. If this were apartheid, I’d be one of those quiet people who just stood by and watched it happen.
It all seems so easy when people sign her online and off-line petitions, but she’s violently punished for taking a stand. The attack leaves her depressed, hearing voices and unable to work. Dr Phakama, whom she sees for counselling, does not seem to understand that what’s being taken from her is “a thing that once lost can never be found because it is unnamed” (p102). Along with medication, she prescribes writing, “picking up the things I used to enjoy” and, rather alarmingly, relaxation exercises guided by imagery of “being alone in a big, empty park behind some tree” (p109). Like the narrator in When I Hit You, she finds some sense of agency by reframing her attack in terms of gender politics.
Structured, like that novel, in brief fragments untagged for time, Kopano Matlwa’s third novel is an angry indictment of contemporary South Africa. At only 150 pages, I read it, courtesy of publishers, Sceptre, in an afternoon. For my own contribution to fiction featuring the pressures on the medical profession, see my short story Doctoring.