BOOK REVIEW: Winning combination of vivid imagination and love of story
Discovering a first novel with a young writer in the process of finding his voice is exciting. Beyers de Vos talks about his passion for writing and future plans
It’s always exciting reading the first novel of a new writer, especially when it turns out to be quite experimental, pushing the boundaries and the result of an MA in creative writing under celebrated author Etienne van Heerden.
The young man in question is Pretoria-born and bred Beyers de Vos; the novel, a thriller, is titled Talion (Penguin) and the dedication of the book points to the origins of his writing:
For my mother, who taught me to love words.
And for my father, who told this story first
It’s also a love of reading and being blessed with incredible English teachers all through primary and high school, he explains. “They fostered a love of story.”
“I wanted to understand how those stories worked, why I loved them so much and how they were made. When I started writing myself, trying to find those answers, everyone was really encouraging. I also had a really strong sense that my imagination was my strongest asset. If I let my imagination grow, if I figured out how I could harness it, I would never feel alone, never feel powerless, never feel insecure. And after all that, what choice did I have but to become a writer?”
With an undergraduate degree in publishing, an honours degree in English literature and then creative writing, following this with a first novel, he felt comfortable enough to resign his job as scriptwriter to focus on a second book. “So reckless of me,” he interjects.
Yet when you listen to his story, there’s nothing that’s not carefully thought through in the way he has gone about carving a niche in the world of literature.
“I knew that I wanted to write a novel. But I also knew that I would never commit to it if I wasn’t put under some pressure. I thrive in an academic environment, so an MA seemed ideal. Having Etienne as my supervisor was just luck, he was there and at my disposal. He’s a genius, obviously, and his influence on my work is difficult to measure. With Talion he really guided it from something that could have been more ordinary to something that is maybe a little stranger.”
Jo Nesbo only smarter
We’ll get to that strangeness later. First the book, a thriller, which is happenstance since it’s not a genre De Vos is going to stick to. “I love crime literature, I like thrillers. But I’m also a bit of a snob about it, I need my thrillers to be more than your average Jo Nesbo. Not that there’s anything wrong with Jo Nesbo — but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested in the darkness of those stories than the thrill of them. What I’m attracted to is tragedy, thrillers lend themselves to that beautifully. The genre is a vehicle, a short cut, to get to what I’m really after, which is some kind of exploration of why humans are so capable of torturing themselves, and others.”
Whichever way you look at it, the strong feature of the novel is the writing and more importantly, the young audience it should appeal to. The main characters are all in that peer group. It’s set in Pretoria, a city De Vos knows well, which allows him to capture it in an invigorating and unexpected fashion. He even has Oom Paul and his warriors doing a gig on Church Square.
He isn’t always sure what he is trying to do or why, some of which works and arguably at other times not quite and he is uncertain how to articulate what attracts him to certain stories, death rather than romance for example. “An idea takes hold of me — in this case the idea was ‘what happens to someone psychologically when they decide to kill someone else?’ — and I become obsessed with it. Then I have to write my way through it. I come out the other side with a piece of work, and I’m not sure I understand what I’m trying to accomplish beyond shaking the idea around until I’ve created something meaningful. What is Talion trying to say? What am I trying to say? I’m still figuring that out.”
That’s not a bad thing, though, and he feels the same about his writing style. “It’s instinct. It has its own rhythm, like music. I didn’t have to ‘find’ it, it just was there, inside my head.” You can feel when reading the book his style is still being formed; sometimes it seems just too precious, perhaps self-conscious, and reader you become more aware of the writing than the story. But what I loved was that he was willing to go this route, to play with ideas and words which will inevitably lead to some failure, yet driven by a desire to do something different, to tell stories his way and to play with a genre that many might advise him to leave well alone.
On some levels it did feel like a first novel because of all the above reasons, but the overriding emotion was one of excitement over this writer’s future writing and how he approaches book two after mostly rave reviews for this first one.
On young readers, he argues different sides. “Are my peers reading? If not, is it because they feel alienated by the books that are out there? Are they looking for something new? Is it even a question of age? It’s certainly my hope that a new generation of writers are writing for a new generation of readers, who can pick up a book and say, ‘this book represents me and the country I know and is exploring ideas that are important to me’.”
De Vos, who describes Afrikaans as his home language and English as his first language, notes that he has a complicated relationship with his heritage, which he is only reckoning with now that he is working in Afrikaans too. “The truth is that my publishers asked me to translate it because they thought the market would be more responsive if it was released in both languages,” he says of the translated version. “The Afrikaans market is much bigger, and to be frank, much more supportive. Going forward, I will be working in both languages. I am currently working on a couple of Afrikaans-only projects, as well as a new novel, written in both English and Afrikaans.”
What I loved about Talion most was the approach on all the different levels, the language, the youthfulness, which is fun and informative and the intent. It is also with some of those aspects that I often struggled most. But given a choice, this is the kind of book I like reading as I discover a new voice still finding its way, but once it hits the ground running, I predict, will soar spectacularly.