April 2016 (4/12)
An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids
Published by Random Struik (April 2014)
416 pages, hardback
How was April? Good?
This month, we’re looking at Nadia Davids’ AN IMPERFECT BLESSING.
In 1993, South Africa is on the brink of political transformation. Fourteen-year-old Alia Dawood undergoes a transformation of her own as she watches the national drama unfold with fascination and fear, longing to be a part of history in the making. As her revolutionary aspirations strengthen in the months before the elections, her radical Uncle Waleed reappears, forcing her parents and sister to confront his subversive and dangerous past.
*BEWARE! SPOILERS AHEAD!*
CHARACTERS & STORY ARC(S)
The book is a coming-of-age tale that chronicles key happenings in Alia Dawood’s life during a time of turmoil in a South Africa on the brink of democratic transformation. Alia’s personal experiences intertwine with the political stances of those around her: her father, Adam; her uncle, Waleed; her mother, Zarina; her sister; Nasreen, her boyfriend, Nick. This repeats in across all characters in the book (Waleed versus Anna; Adam versuss Zarina; Nasreen versus her parents, etc), as if to say, No one is safe from this. One way or another, we’re all drawn in.
The book’s large cast of characters span from Alia’s family and friends to friends of family and friends of friends, most of whom have little to do with her at all (say, Waleed’s girlfriend, Anna and his friends Yusuf, Georgie and Rashaad). The blurbs say the book is about Alia, but much of the story is told by other major stakeholders (even Waleed gets more page time than even Alia–I checked). It comes away feeling as different stories in one, rather than one story. The head-hopping of the third person omniscient POV employed puts that much distance from Alia as well, so much that the story feels more about everyone–all the Dawoods, the whole of Cape Town, the whole of South Africa–than someone.
I’ve never been to Cape Town, but this book gave me a firm sense of time and place. From fancy private schools and drab bars to popular clubs and religious monuments. Even the state of mind of the people of the time was aptly captured by Nadia: the tension in the heart of every Cape-Towner, anger pent-up and waiting to leap out their lips. Processions and demonstrations are aptly captured. I stood with teens huddled in corners, rolling up joints and arguing over political factions. It was refreshing to have such a visceral experience.
This book interrogates issues of faith, race, belonging, freedom, through evictions, rebellions, political assassinations and teenage first loves. The themes are strong and weigh heavily on everything throughout the book, many times taking front-and-centre stage.
The style of the narrative is unapologetically figurative. There is almost no sentence that is dispatched without layers, daring the reader to look beyond the words, underneath. It is something that’s part of Nadia’s style, because it doesn’t feel at all forced. However, it easily makes the book a slow read, especially in cases where there are two, three metaphors describing the same idea. This is more glaring when descriptions of ambiance and person stretch beyond the occasional short paragraph. Sometimes, maybe too much.
The style also feels quite scholarly, like the book is a report for a creative writing assignment. The vocabulary–though mixed in with colloquial expressions from other South African dialects: Afrikaans, Xhosa, etc–is quite expanded and many times high-brow. This, though, is rescued by the strong characters and the layers within the sentences.
It’s a good book, though I wouldn’t read it on a good day (that says more about my personal preferences than about the book itself). Themes are strong, writing is actually quite good, characters are endearing and real enough to care for and follow. It’s a slow read, but the style is enjoyable and involves a lot of stopping to ponder at what’s being read. Would I recommend it? Maybe. But only to those interested in literary fiction of the highest order. If you’re strictly a genre person, steer clear of this one.
WHERE YOU CAN GET IT
- Amazon (Kindle edition only): If you prefer the screen over print, here. Only $8.19.
- Clarke’s Bookshop, 199 Long Street, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa: Search down the list for Davids, Nadia. Goes for R240, exclusive of shipping (approx. N3,500, which is less costly than shipping from outside Africa).
Let us know if you’re aware of any other avenues.
In May, we’ll be bringing you a special edition! We’ll read two books!
THE PASSPORT OF MALLAM ILIA!
AN AFRICAN NIGHT’S ENTERTAINMENT!
Both by CYPRIAN EKWENSI. Up next on A Year of Books.
See you in thirty days, friends.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa.
Words Are Work … and fun too!