James Hendry books: A sun-drenched bushveld break

Victoria John

"A Year in the Wild" and "Back to the Bush" by James Hendry read like a summer holiday, a loud-laughing party with good friends on a warm night.

James Hendry. (Supplied)

I have piles of books in my flat that friends have given to me saying: "If you really want to know if South Africa is going to end up like Zimbabwe or if Malema will be president one day then you have to read this". 

It’s all politics and history and struggle veterans and these books leer at me from their place on the windowsill with their colossal wisdom and heavy content. I'd be a better person if I read them, allegedly. So I didn’t exactly launch myself into the two books with upside-down cartoon animals on their covers that my editor suggested I review next. What boundless insights would I absorb from James Hendry's A Year in the Wild and its sequel Back to the Bush, I thought? More than my supercilious self bargained for, actually.

But imparting life lessons was not Hendry's main aim for these novels and it is not why I recommend you buy them as Christmas presents for your loved ones, either. I don't often go for books that are supposed to make you laugh – I’ve found that they often don't in my case, so it was with a fair amount of surprise that Hendry's did – again and again. They were undeniably one hell of a raucous reprieve, if you’ll grant me that oxymoron. They were a summer holiday, a messy, loud-laughing party with good friends on a warm night, if that makes it clearer. We all need to find an escape from the Twitter wars, race debates, and strategy meetings somewhere. I found it in these books.

The MacNaughton brothers, in their twenties, are the stars of the first book, sent to a private, luxury game lodge in the low veld by their parents in a bid to mend their tattered relationship. The secluded lodge, hours away from a major city, provides a fertile setting for the seemingly limitless and hilarious folly of the guests, colleagues and animals the brothers encounter. Their adventures are relayed in the form of emails from the brothers to their sister in Johannesburg in which Hendry skillfully sets the tone for the very contrasting personalities of the young men: affable, hard-working camp manager Hugh, and argumentative, angry ranger Angus. It is Hugh’s propensity for panic and Angus’s searing sarcasm that makes both books so entertaining.

Although the books would be easier to relate to if you have actually stayed at a lodge and appreciate the bush, the characters, their accents and highly recognisable, "typically South African" personae mean there is something for everyone here.

Angus’s inability to hold back from poking fun provides much hilarity. There was the time with the government-issue condoms or "gumboots" that allow "as much sensation as a cricket pad", and the runaway bushfire Angus refers to as the "world’s most enthusiastic braai". It is the kind of comedy that will have you looking around for someone to read out loud to.

The feminist in me bristled, however, at what I thought were sometimes sexist descriptions of the female characters, including references to appearances or relationship status, which was not the case for the males. Head of finance Hilda, for example is introduced to the reader as: "120kg. Unmarried" and there was more than one reference to the "slutty" behaviour of the female characters.

My indignation subsided, however, when I realised that Hendry had no aspirations whatsoever to wear the politically correct label. Some books are just not PC, he told me unashamedly in an interview, and shouldn’t have to be. What made this acceptable, I think, is the realisation as I got further into the story that he wasn’t cracking jokes at the expense of just one class of people but at all of them, every nationality and the many accents that go with them. Sometimes all you can do is laugh at the unapologetic impudence in these novels.

'Meatier' sequel
The first book was indeed a "riotous novel" as its title proclaims, softened by very sweet moments of tenderness with the women Angus cares about. There is even a death – one that challenges him, on into the sequel even, to "see good in the world and enjoy it".

But the second book is undeniably "meatier" as Hendry described it in our interview. Angus as the star of the sequel proves even further his praiseworthy principles in some fist-pumping scenes of heroism. We learn that he has a socially engaged side too. He visits a school lead by a corrupt principal, engages with a staff member who has just learned he is HIV positive, and intervenes in a hostile labour protest – all of which he says gives him new perspective on his own trifling problems.

Hendry’s 10-year long background as a game ranger, land manager and lodge manager added depth to his loving descriptions of bird calls, trees and how the light changes when afternoon turns to dusk – descriptions that barely conceal what is clearly his aching nostalgia for the bush. The honesty with which his main character, Angus, struggles with grief and loss, and the respect he shows for nature could only have been based on real-life experiences in the bush.

It was 7am–ish and the Putco busses were roaring outside my window on 7th avenue, Parktown North, when I finished the second book. I had that Sunday blues feeling I get when finishing a good book.

I didn’t want to leave the action and anguish of Sasekile Private Game Reserve. I wanted the promise of a third book and more fun and foolishness. I wanted to go back to that time with Angus when he watched a leopard while sitting in the long grass late one afternoon, letting "every sub-atomic particle of my body suck in the summer bushveld".

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