In my opinion, Nick Mulgrew is the most extraordinary young man of words. Quick bio run down: In 2014, in his early twenties, he founded uHlanga, a magazine of poetry from KwaZulu-Natal – the now award-winning uHlanga Press publishes poets more widely. Personally, he’s had the support of the German Sylt Foundation, the Swedish Literature Exchange, amongst others, and was a Mandela-Rhodes scholar. His work, mainly short fiction and features, has won lots of awards and accolades, including a Thomas Pringle and Nadine Gordimer Award. He’s written four books, was born in South Africa in 1990, raised both in Durban and Orewa, New Zealand, is currently doing his PhD at Dundee University and is based in Edinburgh. This is not to over-brag on his behalf, just to expand on his background which again, in my opinion, throws light on why this, his fourth book and first novel is also completely extraordinary. And absolutely original.
The story starts in South Africa – the opening line, ‘The neighbours were murdered at Christmas.’ lays the cards on the table, and then, through the person of 19-year-old Mary, makes its way across oceans to New Zealand. It’s no coincidence that there is a Hibiscus Coast in both countries.
On the imprint page, it says ‘This book is a work of fiction. Any descriptions…of actual persons, places, events or organisations are fictitious.’ I’m sure this is quite true, but the persons, places, events and organisations here are so meticulously described as to ring peels of bells – both in what a reader may have experienced or imagined. Whilst I’ve never been to New Zealand, the images, and dialogues especially, appear to have been born from close and processed observation. And research. Mulgrew acknowledges, together with the South Coast Herald archives, the National Library of New Zealand, the Auckland City Library, Takupuna Library and UCT Library as some of his sources. Interestingly, something of a graphic artist, young Mary spends a bit of time in libraries too. He was also helped tremendously by ‘komiti members of Te Herenga Waka of Orewa’ – so those who know little of the indigenous culture of NZ are in for some lessons. Now I know what a ‘hangi’ is, and that it needs to get laid. In fact I think I learnt quite a bit about South African culture too – for better and worse.
But aside from the extraordinary insight that’s gone into this book, as well as lived experience and research, what I found to be so absolutely original is its construction. The text is ‘illustrated’ with what you might call ‘supporting documentation’ – affidavits, newsletters, newspaper cuttings, posters, flyers, even hand-written notes. It’s been conceived and laid out with such care, that it commands respect – as well as a place in the timeline of both countries. I’m sorry not to have given any details of the plot itself, but oty to discover. Finally, they say you can’t tell a book by its cover, but what you can tell from this one, is that it really IS absolutely original.
First published on the GBAS FB page.