Coconut by Kopano Matlwa

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“I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell.”

So reads the epilogue to this thought-provoking portrait of what it means to be young and black in modern South Africa. But the story that precedes it is not boring or plain in the least. It’s achingly familiar, candid and unforgettable.

The book is divided into two parts, each a snapshot of a Sunday in the lives of two very different young women, Ofilwe and Fikile. Interspersed are memories, instances and conversations that have shaped their view of the world and, more importantly, what they perceive to be their place in it. Matlwa writes frankly an intimately and her characters are vividly brought to life – no easy feat in a book just under 200 pages. I felt for the young Ofilwe – rich, pampered yet desperate to fit in with her white friends and being both included and excluded in the social circle she yearns to belong to. Fikile too, a waitress from the townships who knows hardship and lives a life the complete opposite of Ofilwe’s, wants to escape more than just poverty. Her words “I am not one of you, I want to tell them. Some day you will see me drive past here in a sleek air-conditioned car, and I will roll up my windows if you try to come near me, because I am not one of you. You are poor and black and I am rich and brown” encapsulates both their sentiments. Their crisis of self and views of society are challenged and changed throughout the novel and I think both girls and the reader come away thinking of the world around them a little differently.

This is a novel which describes a loss of culture and identity, the price of longing to be accepted and fit in, and the sting of racism sometimes subtle, often not. But it is also a captivating story of growing up and finding oneself. A grand and important coming-of-age told by an impressive young writer.

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We Were Liars by Emily Lockhart

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“We are liars. We are beautiful and privileged. We are cracked and broken.”

The second I finished this book, I had to flip back to the beginning and skim the pages front to back hunting for the subtle little clues that may hint at the shocking end twist – and they were rather unnerving when spotted. This novel is clever, the writing superb and, if her other books prove to be as addictive, Emily Lockhart may well be my new favourite YA author.

I’m not too keen to write about the plot of this novel, at the risk of revealing too much. I didn’t read any reviews prior to reading it myself, and I do think its haunting impact is so much greater going into it blind. This is certainly not your standard YA fare. Even though an obligatory teen-romance does play out beneath the summer sun, it is so central to the novel’s dark tragedy that a touch of sentimentality is easily forgiven. This is much more a story of family dynamics, loss, guilt and the sometimes misplaced passions and impatience of youth. Of coming of age, while traversing the ever changing terrain of relationships and coming to terms with life’s inherent traumas.

I enjoyed the languid accounts of summers past and present, and devoured the darker turns which are revealed slowly and kept me eagerly turning the pages – perfect pacing! Lockhart’s writing is sophisticated and vividly beautiful, several passages left me with those delicious language-nerd goosebumps only exceptional writing can achieve:

“Welcome to my skull.
A truck is rolling over the bones of my neck and head. The vertebrae break, the brains pop and ooze. A thousand flashlights shine in my eyes. The world tilts.”

“He cried like a man, not like a boy. Not like he was frustrated or hadn’t gotten his way, but like life was bitter. Like his wounds couldn’t be healed.”

“One day when no one else was around, I went into the craft room at the back of the ground floor. I touched Gran’s collection of fabrics, the shiny bright buttons, the coloured threads. My head and shoulders melted first, followed by my hips and knees. Before long I was a puddle, soaking into the pretty cotton prints. I drenched the quilt she never finished, rusted the metal parts of her sewing machine. I was pure liquid loss.”

Exquisite.

If you’re a reader who likes your YA to veer into more serious territory, this needs to be on your shelf. Dog days in this novel are bittersweet with the sting of private drama, and chances are that not a single character or event will be quite what you initially suspect.

The Girls by Emma Cline

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We were like conspiracy theorists,
seeing portent and intention in every detail,
wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation.

I adored and obsessed over this book, from its first sentence to its last.

When I started this blog, it was largely as a sort of motivation to finally read and reduce my slightly intimidating TBR pile – mostly books I’ve owned for several years, the lure of the bookstore being undeniable but reading time often being a luxury. And so I made a slightly absurd promise to my pouty lipped self that I will abstain from book buying for a year and indulge the backlist lining my apartment walls (this has thus far succeeded and failed in equal measure). But then an advanced copy of this debut novel landed in my lap (or slightly messy desk, rather) and I was so captivated by its premise and dreamy saturated jacket treatment, that I put my reading goals to rest and cracked its spine.

The Girls is set in sun-soaked late 60’s summer, and it takes its cues from a lurid chapter of American crime history – the Manson Family’s August 1969 killing spree. But this is hardly a novel for true crime junkies, although it never shies away from the shocking acts that inspired it; there’s a sense of looming dread from the very first page, but the novel becomes so much more.

Fourteen years old, her parents’ recent divorce and a falling out with her best friend has left Evie Boyd jaded. Bored and desperate for attention, she spots a group of enigmatic older girls – the titular – in a park and she’s soon enthralled by Suzanne, who invites Evie to their ranch commune and introduces her to the seductive Russell, a below average musician with grand philosophies and an eerie control over the girls and the ranch. And Evie is falling in love, not with Russell, but with Suzanne who becomes a sort of cruel older sister influence.

Evie’s need of Suzanne becomes central to the novel. With Suzanne, she blossoms, seduces, and feeds her desire to belong, to be seen. But there is nothing sentimental about Cline’s writing in this regard. She perfectly evokes the stinging insecurities of a bored 14-year-old on a dangerous path, but it’s never naïve or sugary. You never once forget that the girls, the ranch, Suzanne, are destructive and Evie is hurtling towards a violence and a loss of innocence. And it’s symbolic of a sentiment that haunts the coming-of-age of almost every girl. That clinging, dreadful anticipation; a certain myth-making around our entry into womanhood.

As an older, obviously scarred and more subdued, Evie at one stage remarks:

“Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”