Monday, June 20, 2011

The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach

Translated by Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach from the Afrikaans

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. 

Special thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter for the Advance Review Copy.
This title was released June 14, 2011.

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