Archie Swanson reviews CONJECTURES by James Leatt

There can be no doubt that Conjectures is a work of extraordinary breadth taking the reader on the author’s journey towards the resolution of deep personal questions of spirituality and faith. James Leatt’s life experience, first as a Methodist Minister and then an academic, serve as a backdrop to the conjectures he outlines.

Of course, a conjecture is a conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information and therein lies the challenge of the book. How does one pull all the philosophical threads of the ages together to discover a sort of spiritual Theory Of Everything. Leatt experienced a Damascus Road moment standing on the verandah of his alcoholic parents’ rented house in Kalk Bay as an eleven-year-old boy — a deep inner assurance that he had a right to be part of the universe. What followed was a journey in search of spiritual understanding which initially led to his conversion to Christianity followed by a life-long transcendence away from that safe harbour of the Doctrines of the Church towards a secular spirituality.

Enroute we are taken on a tour de force of the thinking of the great writers and philosophers of the ages: Pascal’s ‘The heart has reason that reason cannot know’. In Tennyson’s Ulysses ‘I am part of all that I have met’. The third century BCE questions posed by Epicurus ‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Is he able but not willing? Is he both able and willing? What then is the origin of evil?’ The particularity problem raised by Reinhold Niebuhr in relation to Jesus as the only way. Jung’s theory of the two-million-year-old self. Marx’s ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness’. Freud’s religion as a projection of suppressed desires. In Speaking of God, William Horden’s ‘The language of religion is not scientific but rather describes the mystery of God. Nietzsche’s ‘… the death of God’. There are discussions of mindfulness and Eastern beliefs.

As Leatt puts it, “I have been a forager looking for ideas that throw light on my life and times”. He concludes that he can no longer accept Judaism, Christianity and Islam’s appropriation of the world’s religion. He is glad to be the beneficiary of the process of disenchantment whereby magical thought and practice are eliminated by science and technology.

His wrestle with the issues of faith, meaning and ethics finally leads him to the formulation of the tenets of his secular spirituality, yet somehow one is left with the impression that Leatt is still that hungry eleven-year-old boy looking to the Kalk Bay stars for answers.

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Archie Swanson’s poetry has been widely anthologised both in South Africa and overseas. He has published three collections of poetry: the stretching of my sky, the shores of years and, most recently, beyond a distant edge. He serves on the Board of the South African Literary Journal which publishes New Contrast. Instagram @poetarchie 

Eckard Smuts reviews AN ISLAND by Karen Jennings for the Daily Maverick

Sometimes, she says, when we are afraid that our own narratives are at risk of being erased, we stop investigating history, and risk becoming stagnant in the process. That is why we have an obligation to keep on interrogating the past as fully as we are able to. If there is a lesson to be had in An Island (I hasten to add that, to the story’s credit, it doesn’t trade in easy morals), it is that this obligation never comes to an end. We cannot, like Samuel, retreat to our little enclaves of memory and build walls to keep out the world. Even those of us battling ghosts from the past — and maybe especially those of us battling ghosts from the past — need to keep our noses to the wind, to the strange new forms of relation blowing in from distant shores.

Daily Maverick

Somak Ghoshal reviews AN ISLAND by Karen Jennings

It’s tempting to imagine the island as a symbol of imperial ambitions, though the idea of Samuel, thwarted all the way by life, as an oppressor is also risible. If anything, An Island reveals the shifting sands of power and the persistence of inequality, even among the most wretched. Like her great literary forbearers—Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee—Jennings makes bold this ineradicable truth.

Mint Lounge

Monique Verduyn reviews A Hibiscus Coast by Nick Mulgrew for Business Day

The impact of emigration is a fractious topic for many, and Mulgrew’s finely developed, sometimes messy, characters have been deeply affected by life events, losses and prejudices. When the group of rugby-mad expats encroach on the dream of the local self-appointed Māori leader, Mulgrew deftly draws comparisons between two narratives of land ownership and dispossession.

With SA nineties culture as a backdrop, the novel reflects on what it takes to fit in. It is also a considerate portrayal of Maori culture and the challenges these First Nation people continue to face. This a beautifully written, carefully researched novel on a difficult subject.

Business Day

David Attwell reviews An Island by Karen Jennings for LitNet

Samuel’s final act is a culmination of this violence and, paradoxically, a desperate and self-destructive protest against the triumph of cruelty in the world.

An island is an ethically driven and formally accomplished novel. Those making decisions about texts to prescribe in the undergraduate curriculum might consider it. If Mark Behr’s The smell of apples was a university text of the 1990s, with its emphasis on the uncovering of apartheid-era secrets – a novel that was eminently teachable because it was ethically centred, with clear lines of development – the novel that might play a similar role for the 2020s could well be An island.

LitNet

‘It took the Booker to introduce South Africans to their own Karen Jennings’, writes Jean Meiring

This year’s discovery, though, is Jennings (born 1982), who, in spite of having produced several excellent earlier books, has not been afforded the acclaim in South Africa that she deserves. The truth of the hoary adage that a prophet is rarely hallowed in her own land rings especially true, it would seem, of South Africans who write literary fiction in English.

[…]

Whether Jennings’ name appears on the shortlist that will be announced in London tomorrow afternoon or not, one can only hope that her longlisting will have changed the trajectory of her career: that she will never again have to make out a case to be published. And never again be published in print runs of only 500.

LitNet

Hephzibah Anderson reviews AN ISLAND by Karen Jennings for the Observer

Karen Jennings’s taut, tenebrous novel describes what happens when Samuel, a septuagenarian lighthouse keeper and the sole inhabitant of a small island off the coast of an unnamed African country, acquires an uninvited houseguest. 

[…]

An Island is the only small-press published novel on this year’s Booker prize longlist, and if its chances of making the final cut feel slender, its deft execution and the seriousness of its political engagement serve as a potent reminder of all that such titles add to the literary ecosystem. Those same qualities should also win it readers well beyond awards season.

The Observer