Two reviews: The Texture of Shadows and We Are Not Such Things


Book Review: The Texture of Shadows: A Novel by Mandla Langa
Publisher: Picador Africa
Device: Paperback
Location: In bed
Rating: Revolutionary

Book Review: We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun
Publisher: Jonathan Ball
Device: Kobo
Location: In bed
Rating: Unsettling

Today I’m reviewing two books side by side because I read them more or less at the same time. The stories are completely different, one is fiction while the other one is narrative non-fiction, but both take place during a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history: the dismantling of apartheid.

The Texture of Shadows: A Novel by Mandla Langa is set in the tumultuous late 1980s, just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and South Africa was declared a democracy in 1994. We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun investigates the events of 1993, when Amy Biehl was murdered in Gugulethu by a group of men who’d just attended a PAC rally.

Both books, one fiction, one not, interrogate and undermine the idea of a universal truth, focusing instead on a myriad of smaller, personal, often conflicting narratives to make sense of the whole.

The Texture of Shadows is one of those books I’ll keep on my bookshelf to pass down to my kids one day. It tells the story of Nerissa Rodrigues and her fellow comrades. Disillusioned yet loyal to the Struggle, a band of exiled guerrillas are tasked with one final mission: to return to South Africa with two mysterious boxes. But there are people on both sides of the fight who don’t want the contents of the boxes to see the light of day and a bloody race against time ensues.

Langa is an gifted storyteller. Filled with terror, suspense, and not a small amount of wit and irony, The Texture of Shadows is a powerful imagining of the events of 1989. It’s a revolutionary act, this book, because it reveals how corruption can poison anyone’s heart, no matter how noble their initial intentions. It also deals with the difficult issue of askari – soldiers who are captured, tortured and turned against their own people.

It’s a book about betrayal and redemption – a brilliantly crafted political thriller set in KwaZulu-Natal. Reading it all the way in Korea, I did feel joy when I recognised people and places I admire. For example:

If The Texture of Shadows is a revelation of the monsters apartheid created, We Are Not Such Things is a story of the goodness that lies within each of us. Van der Leun is unrelenting in her investigation into the murder of Amy Biehl, an American anti-apartheid activist whose death sparked the formation of the Amy Biehl Foundation.

But We Are Not Such Things is also the story of how the writer can sometimes be surprised by the unfolding narrative. Van der Leun finds that the events of that day and the two decades that followed are not as clear cut as depicted in the media and embarks on a road peppered with lies, half-truths and conflicting agendas.

Perhaps the most poignant piece of the story is her friendship with Easy Nofemela, one of the alleged murderers and a long-time employee of the Amy Biehl Foundation. She becomes intimately acquainted with Easy and his family and it becomes as much a story of his involvement in the murder as her desperate desire to free him of all guilt.

The Texture of Shadows and We Are Not Such Things are crucial texts in the understanding of the psychology of South Africa and South Africans. The characters – whether fictional or inspired by real life – are our neighbours, our friends, our family members. They are ordinary people who’ve endured and/or inflicted extraordinary suffering and are still – in 2016 – battling to come to terms with their individual and collective identity in the face of untold terror.

State lawyer: You see what I am going to suggest to you, Mr. Nofemela, is that the attack and brutal murder of Amy Biehl could not have been done with a political objective. It was wanton brutality, like a pack of sharks smelling blood. Isn’t that the truth?

Easy Nofemela: No, that’s not true, that’s not true. We are not such things.

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