I am very naughtily behind on my reviews at the mo (taking the delay caused by the Paris themed month into account of course!) and, a whole three months since Simon selected The Dubious Salvation of Jack V by debut author Jacques Strauss for the second meeting of the Manchester Book Club, I am finally getting round to reviewing it because, frankly, it was all a bit ‘dubious’ really!
Jacques Strauss’ novel sees apartheid-era South Africa through the eyes of Jack Vilijee; a mollycoddled, middle class and thoroughly muddled up eleven year old boy. With a Boer Father, English Mother, a sexually confused best friend and a black maid called Susie to whom he devotes as much love and reverence as he would his own mother, Jack, a boy who has never been completely comfortable with the idea of having black servants (unlike his Boer friends), is thoroughly confused. Confusion that, upon the arrival of Susie’s troubled son Percy into his world, threatens to bubble up and reek havoc on his peaceful existence.
The beauty of running a book club full of completely diverse and intriguing people will always be the opportunity to try books you may not have picked up otherwise. I am not, unlike my other half, adverse to picking up brand new authors and approaching something without many expectations and I did initially get excited about the South African theme. Beyond the obvious facts, I have read disgustingly little account of life in apartheid-era South Africa and, although I understood from the cover alone that the story would probably be restricted by the white, child narrator, I was at least expecting something and, sadly, came away with precious little to enlighten me.
The ‘coming of age’ element to the book is utterly convincing and hilarious in places; with the frantic ‘skommel’ling (i.e. masturbating :-)) in various different places and into various household objects punctuating childish portraits of friends and family and juvenile problems blown out of all proportion. However, despite my appreciation for Strauss’ sympathetic young narrator and his universal trials and tribulations, certain elements left me mightily confused. The story is supposedly narrated by Jack as an adult yet there seems to be no hint of retrospection and the South African world ceases to be the deeply troubled place it was at the time and remains viewed through the tunnel-vision of an eleven year old boy. Let me be clear that I didn’t want to read an ‘apartheid’ book, which would perhaps have been just a bit too obvious, however, I would have liked to learn much more about what life was like in the country at that time for everyone.
Although the clearly dramatic events occurring just out of our vision did become frustrating at times, it did help add a film of darkness over this otherwise innocent account. Racism, pedophilia and all manner of other evils lurk in the background to threaten Jack’s bubble and gave the book a little more depth than it might have had otherwise. Jack’s friend Petrus; who wants to be a mermaid or an air-hostess when he grows up, adds amusement and tragedy to the tale and his Boer family and their apparently wild differences from ‘English’ South Africans was something I had never considered and would certainly like to explore in the future.
This is Strauss’ debut novel and I’m intrigued to see what he offers next; whether it will be more South African tales or whether he will branch out somewhere entirely different. This book, interestingly enough, completely divided the boys and girls at book club, with the boys seeming to gain much more from it…perhaps recognising a bit of themselves in his quite ordinary (servants aside), boyhood.
A mixed review all in all!