Saturday, December 30, 2017

Alive Again by Andre Eva Bosch

Alive Again by Andre Eva Bosch was a review copy that fell on my desk, so it's not necessarily a book I would have chosen to read myself, but in the spirit of fairness, I'll give this winner of the 2013 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize my best. 

Alive Again tells us the story of Nandi, a bright young girl who grows up in KaNyamazane township. Her mother is a cook by profession, and her father appears to be largely absent – doing manual labour. Her parents couldn't be more different. Her mum believes that her children should have a good education so that they can be the best that they can be, while her father is an embittered man prone to violent outbursts. (It's this strong dualistic divide between good/bad attitudes in the parents that did grate on me a bit.)

Nandi harbours dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer, so she works hard towards that dream, supported by her friend Maryke and her Special Boy Bheka. And the friendships between the youngsters is all quite charming, and the budding romance is a lovely counterpoint to the Terrible Thing that Happens. I won't say more for fear of spoilers, but I'm sure savvy folks will be able to read between the lines and figure out what topic I'm skirting around.

Bosch's writing flows well and is most certainly accessible, and it's easy to see why the judges liked this story – despite the tendency to indulge in exposition, there is well-defined narrative: Despite the absolute awfulness of The Terrible Thing, this is a tale about hope and about being strong in the face of incredible adversity. Love conquers all, and all that. But. (There is going to be a "but" for those who know me well.) I personally felt that this novel verged on being too didactic and the development of the characters could have had more nuance when I compare this to novels in a similar genre. The style of the narrative is very much like a memoir, so there is more focus on Nandi's feelings and less on direct and indirect characterisation, so layering felt a bit glossed over, and there could have given a little more friction between characters as one would find in real life. As it is, the antagonist's motivations for their actions feels almost left of field, even if they are painted out from the get-go for being a horrible person. (So in that sense they're a bit two-dimensional and even though some sort of historical basis is given to justify their actions, it still didn't ring quite true with me.) 

I give that it's beyond the scope of the novel to delve too deeply into the darker aspects of the plot, but even that to me felt as if it had almost been brushed off. Granted, I suspect this story was written with the motive for providing a role model for girls who might be in a similar situation, so the transformative aspects that hinge on the Terrible Thing are focused on rather than the negative aspects. (Hence me maintaining my feeling that this story is didactic in nature – the author stating clearly about "universal messages" in the foreword is a dead giveaway, in my opinion.) I'm not certain how young readers might feel about reading a book that's been set up to deliver such an overt message. I guess that's up to individual readers, and I feel that as a devoted reader, I'm a little leery of authors who employ certain devices to progress character development and sound clarion calls for hope and courage, even if their motives come from a good place.

I can well imagine this book may be stocked in school libraries or gifted to young readers who may be in need of a bit of inspirational literature. But if you've got a teen who's into their action-packed Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons, then maybe steer clear and try to find something more to their tastes.

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