I do not like zombie movies generally. My best friend loves "The Walking Dead," but I couldn't even watch the first episode. But she assured me that the movie, "World War Z," was not as gross. She thought I would like it and might like the book even more. My son was dying to watch the movie with me and so we did. And I liked it. But I understood the book was very different, so I read it, too.
In the book, an interviewer (never identified) goes all over the world to talk to various survivors of the Zombie Wars. The zombies are a result of a virus, but the only way the virus is transmitted is by direct contact with the body of a zombie. In that way, it sounds like an extremely lethal STD, with the exception that the victims don't actually die. They "live" to spread the virus, which means that it spreads all over the world very rapidly. One of the issues the book explores is how different countries respond to the threat and how long it takes them to really believe it is happening.
Another issue was the toll that war takes on those who participate in it, not just the people fighting, but also the people who have to plan for how to respond. Because those people have to make some extremely tough decisions about who is left at risk and who is protected and why.
The problem, I think, is one common to oral histories. Each story seemed more like a short story without a very thin connection to the other stories. It felt like a book that should be read in connection with a more straightforward accounting of these wars, so you could fit each person's mini-story into the overall whole. The author did a good job with the stories, so, as I say, I think this is just the nature of oral histories. But I did understand why the movie was so different from the book. The movie actually has a plot. Once I abandoned any desire for a plot in the book and embraced the book for what it was, I liked it more.
Payback looked like a gorgeous book – lovely cover, set in Cape Town, glowing reviews.
On the positive front, it offers a wonderful view of contemporary South Africa; the landscape, the suburbs, the townships and the atmosphere of Cape Town; journeys off to the safari lodges and a weekend away to the Angolan capital of Luanda. Every scene, every house, every street has been re-created with love. The conversations and the vibe all ring true; the will to live in an optimistic present even if it means reconciliation to an unhappy past. It’s a lively, pulsating, throbbing picture viewed through the eyes of both black and white; through the eyes of South African and visitor. The politics is there if you look and want to see it, but nothing is laid on too heavily; the reader is left to work things out for themselves – including sometimes that clear wrongs in the past don’t necessarily make for clear restitution in the present.
Alas, the story is not up to the setting. Payback is a story of gangsters and criminals, variously running guns, drugs and diamonds, all trying to rip one another off. The reader is invited to side with Mace Bishop and his sidekick Pylon Buso, independent “security consultants” who seem to have had violent and colourful pasts. Their enemies – a lawyer by the unlikely name of Sheemina February, various heavies, and some unusual from the United States are the baddies. To support this conceit, we are allowed to see Mace Bishop’s homelife and know a little about his past. The others are just cardboard cut-outs who are no more than their actions on the page.
This is a problem. A reader doesn’t have to like a protagonist, but a reader does have to care. In a traditional crime novel, the reader may not like the detective, and may secretly admire the criminal, but the ability to differentiate the two is crucial. These characters are too underdeveloped, and the difference between Mace Bishop and the baddies is too slight, to allow the reader to start cheering either for or against them.
The plot is confusing at best. It is never quite clear who is scamming who, and in what way they are being scammed, or even why they are being scammed. Even at the end, after a somewhat hurried reveal, only one character’s motivation is revealed. Great heaps of plot seem to be inexplicable – whole story lines seem to be redundant. And in a book that seems to last for ever, that matters. Another failing of the ending is that it isn’t even an ending – it’s really just a signpost to the start of the next book in the trilogy. Perhaps some readers really haven’t quite got the idea and desperately want another two instalments. For me, it’s a temptation I will find quite easy to resist.
Overall, I suspect this to be a competently written novel – I will forgive some of the clunky phrasing as South African verisimilitude – and it is nice to be taken back to sunshine on a dreary Melbourne winter’s day. But this does not forgive a confused, confusing story that is too easy to put down and quite hard to start up again.
Philida is an African slave girl, working for the Brink family in the Eastern Cape in the early 19th century. She narrates some chapters; others are narrated by the plantation owner Cornelis or his son Frans. Later on, more narrators are also brought in. It seems from the end-notes that it is loosely based on Andre Brink's own ancestors.
The basic premise is that Frans has had a relationship with Philida and promised her freedom; he appears to have reneged on the promise and so Philida has gone off to Cape Town to lodge an official complaint. You know it is unlikely to end well.
There are many novels centring around exploitation of slaves. Amongst the best in recent years are The Polished Hoe and The Long Song. Philida is different because it doesn't put forward a straight narrative of oppression and hatred. Instead, we see the perspectives of the landowners, struggling to run farms on tight budgets as the market price of grapes falls. We see a world where slaves can be treated with compassion and do have some rights. We see that in some cases, bonded labourers could be given freedom and could even become accepted into family homes.
Yet for all this apparent rigour and potential for kindness, there is still the fundamental obstacle that the plantation owners were in charge and the slaves were not. Any judicial process would be tilted to work in favour of the landowners and any relationship between slave and farmer could never be one of equals. This makes the abuses (and there are real abuses in Philida) all the harder to stomach.
Half way through the novel, it takes a different turn as Philida is sold on to new owners away from the Cape.