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The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid…

The Book of Happenstance

by Ingrid Winterbach

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Having read "To Hell with Cronje" and liking it, this also is set in South Africa. Helena Verbloem, an Afrikanner, narrates the story of a house break-in in which her shell collection is stolen. Helen works as a lexicographer assisting a man building the history of Afrikanner words in the museum of Natural History. Meeting with indifference from the police, she sets out on her own to find the thief. Interesting concept, but the book bogs down in pages of Afrikanner words and in rambling. Situations seem highly unlikely and the main character not a very likable character. ( )
  maryreinert | Apr 12, 2014 |
Open Letter Press recently published an English translation of The Book of Happenstance by well-known South African author Ingrid Winterbach. As the novel opens, Helena Verbloem has just moved to Durban, a port city on the east coast of South Africa, to undertake a special project. Verbloem is to work with the elegant and learned Theo Verway to create a compilation of obsolete Afrikaans words. She brings along her collection of seashells, which is a kind of spiritual talisman for her:
“Meditating on the shells is one way of centering myself and lowering my levels of anxiety. These shells are a source of infinite beauty and wonder to me. I can rely on their beauty to divert me from vexation and discontent.”

By page five we learn that Theo is to die within seven months and that Helena’s shells have been stolen by a burglar. Herlena spends the rest of the novel in a kind of spiritual quest. Not only is she seeking her shells, but she is also trying to understand her attachment to them. She enters into extended conversations with her coworkers about the origins of life on the planet and the miracle of evolution. Throughout it all, she examines her own life, which includes a lover who inspires nothing more than “great affection.”

Not much happens in The Book of Happenstance, but there is a pervasive sense of foreboding as if the narrative is suspended in a moment of pause right before a dramatic denouement. Clearly, this is Winterbach’s intent, and she goes so far as to have a friend of Helena’s vocalize this: “That’s how I would have liked to write if I could … with little happening ostensibly, but everything charged with meaning.”

That promised drama never arrives, however, and I found myself wishing for either an exciting event or a resolution to the many subplots. On the whole, The Book of Happenstance was unsatisfying, though I enjoyed many of its constituent parts.

This review also appears on my blog Literary License. ( )
  gwendolyndawson | Nov 10, 2011 |
If an author is superficial about character, thoughtfulness, introspection, or inner life, that will become apparent sometime between the opening pages (when nothing much other than descriptions and subject matter are visible) and, say, halfway through the book (when a character will have developed, if the character is ever to develop). In this case I stopped reading on page 78 out of 254. The principal character is strangely bereft when someone steals her collection of sea shells. We're supposed to wonder why, and we're told people think she's "heartless." But nothing develops. In place of insight into her character, we get her own unrevealing descriptions of the shells, and then -- suddenly, incongruously -- she says:

"I do not see myself as heartless. I have a particularly heavy and sorrowful heart: dark, heavy, and saturated with blood. A hairy sack, like the sun in Revelations." (p. 63)

It's a typical writer's fault to tell us something that we should be given to understand through narrative. The book is full of these basic infelicities.This passage is also out of tune with the straightforward, often rote nature of most of the writing (as far as it's visible in translation from Afrikaans). Up to page 78, there is only one other comparable passage, and it's on the very next page: a gruesome and memorable description of the ugly body of one of the narrator's lovers. The rest is pale prose. It seems Winterbach had an especially inspired afternoon at the computer, but she didn't notice the incongruity or the relative lack of inspiration in other passages, and that insensitivity -- or rather, the sense I am compelled to imagine she had that these passages could fit with the rest of the book -- are irremediable flaws in the flow of the narrative and in the confidence readers can place in the writer.

Other infelicities and writer's errors: the chapters tend to begin with lists of obscure Afrikaans words (the narrator works as a lexicographer). As far as it's possible to guess in the translation (the book would necessarily read entirely differently in Afrikaans, because some terms would not be given definitions, but others would), Winterbach thinks that lists of words have a cumulative expressive effect. They don't: they're often fascinating, but that's not writing.

On p. 56, the narrator is driving home, and asks her friend to tell her stories while she drives. After some conversation, the friend speaks while she's driving. Winterbach notes, in the narrator's voice, "We are taking turns to drive." It's easy to see what's happened here: Winterbach has set up the scene in her mind with the narrator driving; she's shifted without noticing, so she explains the shift with this aside. But it's bad writing: she should have described the moment the two stopped the car and traded places, or else she should have fixed the passage so the narrator is still driving. It's a small point, but a characteristic one: Winterbach doesn't seem to notice that an aside like "We are taking turns to drive" is an enormous distraction, because it reminds readers that the writer isn't managing things.

Along with this sort of evidence of lack of skill, and lack of awareness of how characters develop in fiction, there is also a lack of ambition. The narrator gives the Latin names of the shells she's lost, but only glosses them with brief, half-imagined descriptions. Any number of authors -- Joyce, Canetti, Nabokov -- have given us apparently technical lists of apparently uninteresting objects, and fleshed them out with so much erudition, unexpected detail, and brilliant description that they have come alive and become capable of carrying all sorts of unexpected meaning. Nothing of the sort happens here: it's half-heartedly erudite, indifferently expressive, disengaged, light, superficial. This is not a good novel, and Winterbach is not a good writer. ( )
  JimElkins | Sep 3, 2011 |
The Book of Happenstance begins with loss, as a linguistic specialist’s home is robbed and defaced, with her precious sea shell collection stolen. While it may appear a minor crime, the shells and the concept of personal loss becomes an underlying theme that weaves the story along and helps address the issues of science, language, and relationships. Going beyond a crime novel, there are elements of social commentary in it that examine the causes and effects of cultural changes.

Helena is a linguist assigned to help put together an Afrikaans dictionary before the language is completely lost. She and her boss painstakingly collect the words, the root meanings and usages, and document the often fascinating intersections of meaning that appear in disparate words. Despite her efforts, the Museum of Natural History where she is working is at the same time removing the Afrikaans books from their collection, only keeping the most popular titles on hand. The battle appears to be a losing one, as trying to preserve the language is costly and time-consuming. Yet the language is much like the shells: evidence of previous and historic life.

After the police appear uninterested in the loss of her shells, she tries to investigate the crime herself, while at the same time fending off the bizarre and rambling phone calls that she begins receiving from an old acquaintance that she can’t quite place, yet who seems to know her every move. The caller brings up old memories, and her life is thrown off balance by the sense of exposure she’s experienced. First her home has been violated, now her memories too are revealed and speculated upon. Helena is forced to examine what the sea shells meant to her, and why their loss is so devastating.

The novel is complex, and I really enjoyed what it had to say about language and the need to curate the past in order to understand it. I took a linguistics class last spring and was fascinated by how each ‘dead’ language still revealed something unique about its speakers. Similarities between completely different languages, and the ways that regional expressions expand or disappear make linguistics a fascinating study, and the examples of Afrikaans shown extensively in this text attest to that.

Yet Helena is, in many ways, an unlikable character. She has an edge that makes her less than sympathetic at times. For example, she schemes to seduce her married boss for no reason other than that she finds it amusing. Gossiping about her coworkers, again for amusement, makes her easy to dislike. As she analyzes her past, it’s clear she’s left a path of destruction that has many victims beyond her own wounds. Yet her behavior is easier to grasp as she continues reflecting on her childhood and the losses she experienced early.

The numerous coworkers at the Museum appeared to me as flat characters, serving only as blank outlines for Helena’s character to react to, instead of being fully developed on their own. This meant that in some scenes, the dialogue between them felt artificial and almost like a caricature of a typical office setting. I glazed over a few times as Helena questions one of her coworkers about the origin of life, which he rattles on about endlessly without much enthusiasm. His own boredom translated into extensive sections that weren’t that compelling and slowed down the narrative to a standstill.

Aside from that, there were some plot threads that seemed to end erratically, making me wonder why they were there in the first place. Some of these had foreshadowing that tricked me into expecting something else, yet instead of becoming a twist they just disappeared. ( )
  BlackSheepDances | Jun 20, 2011 |
This review was first published in Belletrista.

When reading this novel, the words meditate, ruminate, and reflect all come to mind—a contemplation of the meaning of our lives, on loss and how we can deal with it in an increasingly secularized and fragmented world where the traditional comforts of family, religion and the "old ways" are disappearing. Little happens in the plot, the author does not venture into significant social commentary, nor do the characters achieve any great inner transformation, and yet, when the book is finished, there's a sense that we have been somewhere significant and grappled with something substantial, all encapsulated in beautifully-written prose.

This is, primarily, a story about loss. It opens (after a short preview of the book's ending) with the theft of a small collection of seashells from Helena Verbloem, the highly-obsessive narrator. While, to most people, the theft is minor, to Helena it is a consuming event that takes over her life. Meeting with relative indifference from the police, she sets out to uncover what happened and, most of all, why.

As the story progresses, the theft becomes shorthand for all the other losses in her life: a professional life documenting the Afrikaans words and phrases that are disappearing; family members who walked away or died; an abandoned writing career; lovers gone and coworkers who die. Even her memory becomes a culprit as Freek van As, a man she really does not remember, calls to chat about events that happened to the two of them in the past…events about which she has only the haziest, if any, recollection. A theme emerges suggesting that everything in life is transitory and that any effort to fix a particular instant or to depend upon a particular circumstance is doomed to disappointment.

Helena's response is to become obsessed with understanding the reason for her losses. Why take her shells, and why take nothing else of value? What was the chain of cause and effect that produced her family? Why did her life—actually, Life with a capital letter—get this way?

There are no easy answers in the story. By the last page Helena hasn't discerned a pattern or plan, and neither has the reader. It's as if Winterbach asked all the questions and then declined to answer any of them.

And yet, I think there is an answer there. In a way, I think the translation of the title from Afrikaans to English has taken away one of the clues. Looking at the original title, Die Boek Van Toeval En Toeverlaat, you can't help but notice that it seems to end in two nouns, not one. An online dictionary translates the second as something with connotations to the English words mainstay, refuge or anchor. Read with that in mind, this becomes not just a story about happenstance, but a story about anchoring oneself against that sea of chance because you cannot predict it. As Helena says, "I do not see my destiny as determined by providence, but rather as the convergence of a hundred, of a thousand and one minor coincidences."

The story is full of vivid characters, moments of quiet humor, and the occasional peek into South African society for those of us who do not live there. Winterbach's prose is a joy to read, even in translation (which she helped perform). She, herself, has said, "You know you will always lose something of the original work. In translation you win some and you lose some. But I would rather lose some of the nuances than not be translated at all." I agree completely with that final statement. ( )
4 vote TadAD | Mar 23, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ingrid Winterbachprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Winterbach, DirkTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winterbach, IngridTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"A middle-aged lexicographer, Helena Verbloem, travels alone to Durban to assist in the creation of a dictionary of Afrikaans words that have fallen out of use. Shortly after her arrival, her apartment is burglarized, and her collection of precious shells, shells that she had been collecting for a lifetime, is stolen. Meeting with indifference from the local police, she decides to investigate the crime on her own, with the help of her new friend from the Museum of Natural History, Sof. While investigating the crime, Helena reflects on the life she's lived--her ex-husband, her daughter, her lovers, her childhood--and begins to fall in love with her married boss, Theo Verway. An alternately sublime and satrical meditation on love, loss and obsession"--Cover p. [4].… (more)

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