The joy of Jobson’ glorious versatility

There’s no substitute, really, for reading these short stories yourself.

There’s no substitute, really, for reading these short stories yourself.

RIDE THE TORTOISE by Liesl Jobson (Jacana)

There’s no substitute, really, for reading these short stories yourself, since any attempt to summarise, categorise and otherwise describe them will fall far short of the actual dinkum works themselves.

But let me say that Liesl Jobson has been published in many short story collections and that this, her first solo collection, is a book worth reading — and owning, so that you may have the pleasure of rereading it.

Some of these pieces are in the formal traditional form of a short story and Jobson has certainly mastered this in The Edge of the Pot (in which a policewoman survives the politics, not to mention the culture, and emotional trauma of a Soweto charge office), On a Broomstick (a mother of three sons is preparing the youngest for the death of his father, with some help from a Quidditch dream) and Boston Brown Bread (an Afrikaner father mocks outcomes-based education with savage accuracy, while his gentle little son finds a new use for raisins). All are delivered with swift poetic compression and, considering their emotional freight, are easy to read, with an original edge.

In the two last-mentioned stories, the protagonists are Afrikaans-speakers and somehow their cadences and expressions make one think of Pauline Smith, author of the classic The Beadle and another great collection of stories, The Little Karoo; both these writers render the special quality of Afrikaans in English.

However ineptly bilingual or even monolingual most South African English-speakers are, many of them have an affection for Afrikaans, which enriches South African English and is part of the subconscious mind-set of many South Africans. Smith and Jobson also have in common a fearless exploration of pain.

Other stories are more loosely constructed, often a pastiche of fragments, and sometimes written around a list of some sort.
These lists indicate a need to keep things together, a need for some order in lives where people are just hanging on from day to day. Jobson’s compassion for her characters is another reminder of Smith, but there is also a wry, tough, modern stringency made necessary by the hard world her characters live in. Cocaine, anorexia, cutting, toxic divorce, terminal illness and baby rape appear in the lives she creates for the reader. She shows how thin the line between those judged normal and coping and those who require admission to mental hospitals.

She takes us into some strange territory, such as a weird castle in Namibia, a charge office of the South African police, an orchestra pit, the Blood of Christ coffee shop; yet in all these widely different settings all her stories occupy a narrow, intense zone of personal relationships and personal sense of identity.

They are delicate and subtle, veering unexpectedly and when necessary into the bizarre. There are men aplenty, acutely observed, but she takes us right into the minds of women and girls. Modern mothers and their relationships with their children feature frequently, with much grounding domestic detail, as well as how women manage these matters along with their creative lives and work.

It’s really hard to choose a favourite but perhaps mine is Snap, which starts thus: “Your hair is beautiful, Ouma, like jacaranda blossoms.” A young girl with a serious eating disorder is allowed out of her ward at Tara Hospital to visit her grandmother who has “only got days, maybe hours”. In showing her 10 photographs she has taken, she comments frankly and poignantly on life in Tara and tells her inner reason for being there: as delicate a therapy as one could hope for, featuring another jacaranda blossom.

And then the strangest story in the book is Nymph, which has nothing whatever to do with nubile young women. In another coffee shop a woman escapes her partner, a man who is deteriorating and pathetic, sorely testing her patience. It takes a grimly bizarre flash of fantasy to take her back to the place where she can begin to remember her man the way he used to be, her “blessing”. (I reviewed this remarkable piece once before, in Touch, edited by Karina Szczurek). In contrast to this is Tease, a pastiche of flash-fiction erotica, which is both cheerful and delicious. It seems Jobson can do almost anything, and her readers will look forward to her next book.

A small quibble: the graphic on the cover is lovely but the colours are far too lurid to reflect the subtle and unusual writing in this very fine ­collection.

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