/ 9 May 2007

Book reviews

Midnight Missionary

by Kleinboer


When the original Afrikaans version of this book, Kontrei, was published in 2004, it was hailed as a radical text, smashing racial and sexual taboos and charting new territory for South African prose. The word “shocking” peppers descriptions of the book, now translated into English as Midnight Missionary, the story of a sex-crazed Afrikaner who obsessively seeks out the company of African prostitutes.

The seemingly endless sexual encounters the narrator describes in detail — frequently including compliments about his sexual prowess — serve more to expose his vulnerability than bolster notions of his machismo. This impression gathers strength later in the novel as we learn more about his dysfunctional relationship with his heavy-drinking African girlfriend and genuine love for her child.

There is a sharp distinction between these scenes of a crazed, but oddly amiable, home life and the world he inhabits as a computer programmer, or the flashes we are offered from his conservative upbringing. There are also fascinating snapshots into the personalities and personal effects of the many prostitutes — most of whom are from elsewhere in Africa — which adds a dimension of tenderness to these otherwise meaningless encounters.

Midnight Missionary is gently unsettling in the way it lifts the scab on a distorted society, turns political correctness on its head and pokes a finger into a cultural grey area where a small minority is dabbling with what it means to be South African beyond the clutches of apartheid.

The Meaning of Night: A Confession

by Michael Cox

(John Murray)

Jocelyn Newmarch

Mystery, betrayal, murder, passion and revenge. Few literary pleasures can compare to sitting down with a really decent Gothic novel. You know, the kind where the protagonist is out to seek his or her destiny, but is thwarted at every turn, and where violent death seems an ever-present companion. Michael Cox’s erudite first novel is especially enjoyable, being one of those impossibly detailed historical novels that is so suffused with period detail you forget you are not reading the work of a 19th-century author.

Scholar and book lover Edward Glyver learns accidentally that the widow who brought him up may not have been his mother. Instead, it appears that he is the only surviving son of one of England’s wealthiest and most influential families, his birth hidden from her husband by an angry bride. He becomes obsessed with proving his identity and claiming his rightful place in society, but he has a rival. The criminal poet Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, Glyver’s childhood friend from Eton, will soon take Glyver’s place as Lord Tansor’s adopted son, unless he can somehow change the course of events.

Cox’s creation of the character of Glyver is key to the success of the novel. Glyver is obsessive, snobbish (but proud of his acquaintance with London’s dark underbelly) and violent, but he remains a sympathetic character and the story’s first victim among many. His relentless pursuit to regain his inheritance makes a gripping read.

The author’s list of influences includes Dickens and Wilkie Collins, along with Stevenson and Conan Doyle. The result is, as he claims on the book’s website, “a thoroughly old-fashioned novel” that aims to tell “a good story as well as possible”. The book took three years to write and research, but spent 30 years as a collection of random notes and influences.

The Meaning of Night has been well received by both readers and critics, and has been nominated for the 2006 Costa First Novel Award, previously the Whitbread awards.