Thursday, 1 October 2015

Taming the Groot Vis

In my last blog, I described the Great Fish River - the Groot Vis - and its role in my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter. Urban dividing line, disputed historical border, the mercurial source of drought and flood...

But - beyond the world of fiction - could the Groot Vis (pictured here in calm mood) be tamed to produce a steady flow of water on its way to the sea? Could it turn arid acres into productive farmland, while at the same time avoiding the catastrophic cycle of drought and flood?

Engineers in the 1960s and 70s believed it could. They conceived an ambitious scheme to divert water from the Orange River to the north, into the Great Fish via a series of tunnels, dams and weirs that would both increase and control the flow of water. No more floods. No more drought. Instead, a steady supply of water. In its day, this project was a huge undertaking. Apart from the dams, an 82 km tunnel had to be built to channel the water from the Gariep Dam to the Fish River valley. When completed in 1975, the tunnel was the longest closed aqueduct in the southern hemisphere and the second longest water supply tunnel in the world.

Has it worked?
Ah, now that has divided opinion!
Certainly, the potential for flooding in Cradock and towns further downstream has been reduced. And, with a controlled flow, the droughts are no longer as devastating. But... such a vast project was always likely to have some uncertain results. The dream of creating extensive irrigated croplands has not been totally fulfilled. It turns out that in some areas, ancient salty deposits have been liberated by the water and risen to the surface to render the soil less fertile. And environmentalists worry that the blending of waters from two separate watersheds has seen the proliferation of Orange River flora and fauna within the Fish River system...

The battle for water - and the taming of rivers by damming and diversion - is a global dilemma. On the Colorado in the US, the Yangtze in China, on the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia... Where does the balance lie?

For Ada and Mrs Cath, the wild Groot Vis is both a vital resource and a portent of future events.
I was lucky with the river that day. The drift was open. I sat down on the riverbank to take off my shoes. It would not do to get them wet - they were the only shoes I had. The brown water of the Groot Vis slipped smoothly over my feet as I waded across.

And later,

At first it was a brisk eddy, then a howl of demented water. The drift disappeared beneath angry waves, the legs of the bridge were choked with uprooted trees.
"Oh God," Mrs Cath cried, pressing her hand to her chest, "this is the whirlwind, I know it is -"

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The River runs through it...

The town of Cradock - setting for The Housemaid's Daughter - sits on the banks of the Great Fish River.
Its arid Karoo source has, historically, been the reason for the mercurial nature of the river, giving rise to alternating periods of drought and flood, as I hope you can make out from the contrasting sepia photos (raging surge vs puddles and sandbanks).

For Cathleen, newly arrived in the town in the early 1900s, it's a strange, initially rather sluggish river, very different from the bubbling waters of her native Ireland.
I confess I look out of the window and imagine it is the stream over Bannock cliffs that I hear, not the dull brown rush of the river they call the Groot Vis.

As a result of the river's uncertain flow, Cradock has often been drought-stricken.
The ground between the koppies broke into steep gullies. The Groot Vis was reduced to a trickle. Water was rationed. We washed from buckets.
And yet, within hours, the same meek shallows can become a torrent, rampaging through the lower reaches of the town as happened in the flood of 1974, featured in the book. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that such an unpredictable river should also have a conflicted human history. In the 1800s, the Groot Vis served as the border between settlers from the Cape Colony and local Xhosa tribes. For decades, clashes and wars took place along its length as each side attempted to wrest control.

In writing the novel, I realised that the river could play a key part not just for its physical attributes but also as a dividing line between the communities that made up Cradock, just as it had served as a disputed frontier in the past.
Ada sees this division clearly.
I stood in the centre of the bridge, with white Cradock on one side and black Cradock on the other and the brown water of the Groot Vis creeping beneath me.
What should I do?

More about the river next time.
How, in the end, it was tamed. Again, not without consequence. Or dispute.
And how Ada and Cath learned to cross over...

Friday, 21 August 2015

A trip to Portugal

Here, in my hands at last, is the Portuguese edition of The Housemaid's Daughter... A Cor do Coracao!

The title's literal translation (thanks to Google translate) is 'The Heart Colour'. This echoes several of the other translated titles e.g. the Dutch (de Kleur van haar Hart) and the Polish (Kolor jej Serca).

I quickly checked the glossary at the back of the book to see how the translator had dealt with some of the uniquely African phrases in the book. Hardy readers of this blog will remember my delight at the elegant French rendering of the word doek, which is the headscarf that African women traditionally wear. The French called it a foulard, as in un foulard de soie - a silk scarf. The Portuguese have chosen to translate it as a simple handkerchief or cloth tied around the head. Either way, I hope that Portuguese readers will empathise with Ada's life, from the kaia where she lives as a child at the bottom of the garden to the tokoloshe (espirito maligno!) that she fears will take her away to hell...

The Portuguese publishers have produced a beautiful, African themed cover, with embossed lettering and a background watermarking of a musical score.
So far, the reviews are looking good.
Recommendo muitissimo!
Umu leitura que me deu muito prazer
... a read that gave me a lot of pleasure!
Thank you - and may she fly!

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Social networking... literary-style

Have you heard of a free online Book Club with over 20 million members?

A place where you can share your favourite reads, check out what other people are reading, ask questions of authors?
This is Goodreads, the extraordinary social networking site for book lovers.

I came across it a couple of years ago. You can join various forums depending on the kind of books you like. If, like me, you find the sheer number of new books overwhelming, this is a great way to narrow down your selection. You can be a regular user, or you can dip in and out.

When it came to the publication of my own book, The Housemaid's Daughter, I wondered how I'd find life on the other side of the Goodreads fence as an author.
It's been lively! And a privilege... I've exchanged views with readers, read what they thought of the book, and answered their questions. Through their input, I've also been directed to authors and books that were new to me, and opened my eyes to fresh worlds.

Goodreads has been a great platform. About 10 000 people have added my book to their list, with 7 000-odd marking it as to-read. I've received over 2000 starred ratings, with the majority being either 4 or 5 star. And 400 readers have actually taken the trouble to write a review. Thank you!

There is one section of my Goodreads page that I always check, where readers post a quote from my book that they particularly like.
Here is the one that has scored the most interest. It's in the words of Cathleen, the Irish matriarch of Cradock House, reflecting on her journey from Ireland to make a new life in South Africa and the challenge she faces...

And I remind myself that wherever one finds oneself, home and love is lent to each of us only for a while.
We must care for it while it's ours, and cherish its memory once it's gone.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Recognise this church?

You may be surprised to find out that it isn't the famous St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, but a church modeled on its design thousands of miles south! Yes, this is the Dutch Reformed Church in Cradock, South Africa.

Built one hundred and forty years after the Wren-inspired London masterpiece (actually designed by one James Gibbs), the Cradock church had a slightly bumpy start. At the opening ceremony in 1868, attended by thousands of folk who had come in from the surrounding farms and hamlets, the builder refused to hand over the keys because money was still owed to him. Given that the cost of construction was some £24000, presumably the IOU was not a small amount! A whip-around among the many worthies in attendance led to sufficient funds being collected to appease him, and the keys were duly handed over and the ceremony proceeded.

Since that time, the church has continued to sit proudly above the centre of Cradock, an unmistakable landmark as you approach the town.
Ada, in The Housemaid's Daughter, notes its dominance with a little indignation:
I could imagine flying right over the broad streets of the town, past the spire of the Dutch Reformed Church - far higher than St Peter's, the Master and Madam's church...

Interestingly, it wasn't only South Africa that drew on the design of London's St Martin-in-the-Fields, shown in the picture on the left.

The iconic building inspired lookalikes even further afield in the United States, in India...

Keep an eye out on your travels!

Saturday, 4 July 2015

American Independence Day - yee-ha!

From Wisconsin to Florida, from Georgia to California... everyone's celebrating the Fourth of July!
And, in the spirit of celebration, I'd like to say thank you to so many US readers for their response to The Housemaid's Daughter.

It doesn't seem to matter where you live - or, indeed, whether you've ever been to Africa or not - the story of Ada and Cath has touched many folk. Lots of readers have also told me that the book has gone one further: it's taught them a slice of history they haven't known. We all understand the backstory of our own country and what has shaped it, but despite living in an inter-connected world with television coverage reaching into its furthest corners, we're often ignorant about the background to the places we watch on the screen. Books can help to bridge that gap.

I was hoping to be able to tell my fictional story while simultaneously reflecting the historic journey of South Africa over a period of sixty years from the 1930s to the end of the 80s. It's a time that I lived through (almost all of it!) and I felt there were aspects that I could incorporate into the book which would give readers a sense of the reality on the ground - and perhaps echoes from their own country. I didn't want the politics to overwhelm the story, but rather to make its point more subtly - through the reactions of the characters to the events that befall them.
"A history that I was not too familiar with, and characters you grow to care about.
I want my daughters to read this some day."

And it's interesting - and sad - to reflect that Ada and Cath would recognise many of the the divisions and difficulties that continue to play out today, in many parts of the world. Perhaps that's why the story still resonates...

Friday, 19 June 2015

A Bucket, a Spade, and a Book!

Two pieces of news this week about the French edition of The Housemaid's Daughter, Une Chanson pour Ada

I have just received my copies of the new "Pocket" edition, which is exactly that: a compact version, designed to be convenient enough to fit into a reasonable-sized pocket, and on sale shortly. It has a fresh cover, which you can see from the photo. Once again, a publisher has put a particular stamp on its version. The original Chanson featured a romantic heroine and child, gazing into the distance, but somewhat isolated from one another. In the Pocket edition, the two figures are far more connected, and very much reminiscent of Irish Cathleen keeping a watchful eye on the young Ada. May they fit into many pockets/handbags...

Hard on the heels of Pocket, comes news that my French publisher has selected Une Chanson pour Ada to be part of their special summer promotion, in association with Fnac, the biggest book retailer in France. Twenty titles have been chosen, on the basis of being ideal 'beach' reads. The promotion takes place from mid July to early August, so that readers can arm themselves with diverting literature before they set off on holiday.
Sounds good to me.

A la plage!