The books team at the Sunday Times has put together a list of the top South African books that will give readers insight into the country’s past 20 years of democracy. We feature a selection of their award-wining and best-selling fiction titles below.
To download their colourful infographic, made up of the covers of the selected “notable reads, as a high-res PDF, click here. To download a high-res image in jpg format, click here.
Highlights from 20 years of fiction
None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer (Penguin)
In the extraordinary period immediately before the first non-racial election and the beginning of majority rule in South Africa, Vera Stark, the protagonist of Nadine Gordimer’s passionate novel, weaves a ruthless interpretation of her past into her participation in the present as a lawyer representing blacks in the struggle to reclaim the land.
Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda (Picador)
In Zakes Mda’s first novel, Toloki is a “professional mourner” in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. At a funeral for a young boy, Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village. Together they help each other to heal the past, and as their story interweaves with those of their acquaintances, this elegant short novel provides a magical and painful picture of South Africa.
The Year of the Tapeworm by Chris van Wyk (Pan Macmillan)
Mandla “Scara” Nhlabatsi is a journalist who yearns to write “tales of fantasy and imagination”. In the small hours one morning, he is woken up from a drunken stupor by urgent knocking at the door of his tiny Sofasonke home. Scara stumbles out of bed to find the most unexpected visitors imaginable: the white President of a beleaguered government accompanied by one of his ministers. They have come to ask a favour. And so begins an uproarious sequence of adventures, stranger than any Scara’s overheated mind might have invented.
Kafka’s Curse by Achmat Dangor (Random House)
From the award-winning poet Achmat Dangor, an imaginative reinterpretation of an old Arabic fairy tale unfolds in five magical narratives set in post-apartheid South Africa.
Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter by Pamela Jooste (Transworld Publishers)
Through the sharp yet loving eyes of 11-year-old Lily we see the whole exotic, vivid, vigorous culture of the so-called Cape coloured community at the time when apartheid threatened its destruction. As Lily’s beautiful but angry mother returns to Cape Town, determined to fight for justice for her family, so the story of Lily’s past – and future – erupts.
Disgrace by JM Coetzee (Penguin)
After years teaching Romantic poetry, David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, has an impulsive affair with a student. The affair sours; he is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy’s isolated smallholding. For a time, his daughter’s influence and the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. He and Lucy become victims of a savage and disturbing attack which brings into relief all the faultlines in their relationship.
13 Cents by K Sello Duiker (Kwela)
K Sello Duiker was, before his death in 2005, widely regarded as South Africa’s most promising young writer. 13 Cents, his explosive debut, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book Award (Africa Region) and has gone on to become a modern South African classic.
The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda (Oxford University Press)
Set in the Eastern Cape, where in the 1850s, a 16-year-old prophetess Nongqawuse instructed the Xhosa nation to kill all their cattle and destroy their crops. She foretold that on an appointed day, the dead would arise, the kraals would be full of cattle, the silos full of fresh grain, and the white colonists and others who did not believe in her would be swept into the sea. Mda weaves a captivating story about a family caught up in the events of the 1850s, and their descendants’ continuing feud in the 1990s.
The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic (Umuzi)
It is 1993, and Aubrey Tearle’s world is shutting down. He has recently retired from a lifetime of proofreading telephone directories. His favourite haunt in Hillbrow, the Cafe Europa, is about to close its doors; the familiar old South Africa is already gone. Standards, he grumbles, are in decline, so bad-tempered, conservative Tearle embarks on a grandiose plan to enlighten his fellow citizens. The results are disastrous, hilarious and poignant.
Recessional for Grace by Marguerite Poland (Penguin)
When a post-graduate student of African languages, looking for an angle for her doctoral thesis, comes across an obscure and incomplete lexicon of metaphorical names for indigenous Sanga-Nguni cattle by long-dead academic CJ Godfrey, she knows, instinctively, that she has found her subject. She is given access to his personal papers and field notes, recorded in a remote valley in 1946. Among his many photographs is a small print of a delicately patterned cow. In finding it, she discovers – unwittingly – a cipher to his world.
Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo (Kwela)
Dingz, your “average Wits student”, spends most of his time with his friends, drinking and discussing current affairs – Aids, racism, South African politics and history. Set at the time of the first democratic elections, this novel offers a glimpse into the lives of the “kwaito generation”, both in the township and on campus.
The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury)
A classic novel of English life and family love. Prodigal daughter Juliet is about to be released from prison after being involved in an art theft. This brings the family back together, reopening the wounds caused by her imprisonment.
Coconut by Kopano Matlwa (Jacana)
Coconut tells the story of black children who grow up in white neighbourhoods, go to private schools and have white friends. As is the case with any child, all that these children want is to grow, to be loved; but most importantly, to fit in. Fitting in, however, comes at the cost of one’s blackness – too white for black, and too black for white.
Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns (Tafelberg)
On the farm Grootmoedersdrift, tragic and unexpected events are triggered by a number of fateful shifts of power and dependence in the intimate relationships between four family members.
Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin)
A chef, a portraitist and a barber are taken hostage in a bloody coup to overthrow their boss, the President. They are held in a castle high above a nameless capital city. Far below them, chaos tears through the streets. As the old order collapses, so does the network of secrets and lies that hid the brutal truth about their own dark passions.
The Rowing Lesson by Ann Landsman (Kwela)
Betsy Klein is summoned to the bedside of her dying father in a South African hospital. Faced with having to say goodbye, she imaginatively recreates his life – his struggles to become a doctor after being orphaned young and his fight to win the respect of his Boer patients as a Jew – as well as her own experiences with him as a father.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Jacana)
Zinzi has a sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a client turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons. Set in a wildly re-imagined Johannesburg, it swirls refugees, crime, the music industry, African magic and the nature of sin together into a heady brew.
Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe (Kwela)
Sipho is a young man living in Umlazi, Durban. At 17, he’s a school drop-out who helps out at his father’s mechanic shop during the day. Soon Sipho’s love for fast cars and money leads him into a life of crime that brings him close to drugs, prison time and death.
Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball)
A richly textured novel set in contemporary South Africa. The murder of a beautiful woman shatters the rural village peace of Alfredville, and her husband, the police station commander, is jailed as chief suspect. Her cousin Peter, a freelance writer in London, returns to South Africa for the first time in decades – unsettled, curious, but also in search of a career-defining story. Lost Ground explores questions of xenophobia and prejudice, of national, sexual and personal identity, and what it means to be a foreigner wherever you go.
For the Mercy of Water by Karen Jayes (Penguin)
In a country devastated by drought, water has become the priceless commodity over which a deadly war is being waged. When an unexpected rain leads a group of ruthless water security guards to a town long since thought abandoned, they find an old woman, identified only as Mother, and four girls in a classroom. When strange, dislocated fragments of Mother’s story appear in the media, a young writer is intrigued enough to set off on a journey to find her, a journey that will take her into the heart of a broken country in search of a truth that no one wants uncovered.
- Originally published by BooksLive. A selection republished here with kind permission.
- For the full list of both fiction and non-fiction titles – with short descriptions – visit the BooksLive blog at bookslive.co.za/blog