May 5, 2023
ORIELLE BERRY ON THE surface, the storyline of this absolutely splendid novel is a simple one: a woman goes out to swim in the ocean opposite her quaint Cape Town cottage. However, on the day that acclaimed American artist Stella Wright decides to take a dip, danger lurks a shark is too close to shore and a young male surfer and the woman must make their way back to the sandy shoreline with the greatest of speed and agility as the massive finned creature is out to engulf them in its hefty jaws. Ben Hume is the young man who together with Stella frenziedly swims ashore and their close shave with the man-eater marks the start of their shared traumatic experience. The two have never met before, but as the ocean becomes a menacingly dark and dangerous mass of water, a significant bond is created. Thus begins this compelling novel; it grips utterly as the reader rapidly turns the pages to find out what happens to this unlikely pair who by default share something so big that it markedly impacts their lives. Irwin cleverly links the pair initially as two survivors. Later they inevitably find comfort and solace with the other by engaging in a romantic tryst. Stella, however, is not only older but she is also a married woman husband Jack is the complete antithesis to Ben. Ben is everything Jack is not. Jack is everything Ben is not. Jack is a moneymaker and trades fast and furiously he is attached to his phone like it's another limb; Ben is lanky, longhaired and keeps his cards close to his chest, a foil to Jack's solid presence. He uses his deft hands to create things Stella discovers a box with exquisitely crafted tools in his beatup car that he had left near her house when he went surfing . Jack's money affords him comfort and choice choice of a holiday residence in Cape Town and their swanky home in the US. In her recollections, we hear about Stella's studio in New York which she and an old love had shared in the old days. The same studio living space years later becomes available and Jack tries to entice Stella to agree to his bidding for it, so that it can be converted for her an easily affordable "commodity" that with the apparent ease of his largesse he can purchase to appease his wife. However… back in Cape Town, on those menacing waves, Ben had caught Stella at a delicate moment. Stella and Jack are in the throes of giving up their cottage within spitting distance of the sea to live permanently in America. Stella is the somewhat reluctant wife. Has Jack become too much? Too much on his phone, too much ignoring her needs, too much being Jack. And, when Ben leaves his surfboard at her house after the dangerous encounter with the shark, she Googles him and hopes he calls to come and collect it, which he does and one thing leads to another. Ben's lifestyle is at complete odds to the moneyed American couple. His apartment in Salt River is a disastrously messy shambles and while Stella spends her time painting big, bold pictures, Jack trades very loudly and very vocally on the volatile markets, interrupting Stella's peace. Superbly evoked is Mandla, Stella's goto assistant and house help. Horrifically, when he implores her to urgently take note and repair the rapidly crumbling seaside cottage, she realises how little she knows of this affable and deeply caring man whom she has come to rely on, yet another turning point she notches up in her growing selfdiscovery. Stella also lectures at the Fine Arts department at the university and as much as she enjoys guiding the motley crew of aspiring students with their innovative projects, she catches her breath frequently as she finds herself unravelling further. Meanwhile, Ben could well be the everyman. As much as he lives on the edge, his innate intelligence and sense of questioning and seeking answers seems to make sense, whether it be about the way he lives, the questions he asks Stella about her art, and his justification about love and loving and about how carnal desire morphs into mutual affection dependence for the other as well as a need.... A deeply searching novel questioning not only how and why we seek solace in another person, but why we live the way we do; choose the partners we need; seek comfort in the familiar and may discard that very comfort towards an alternative existence to find a different sort of solace. There is all this and so much more in this beautifully rendered novel. And talking of solace, you will ultimately find oceans of it in this searching book that cannot be recommended enough.
Thank you to Pan MacMillan South Africa for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. SPOILER WARNING: This review may contain spoilers! Accomplished American artist Stella Wright’s beachside home in Cape Town is perched on the edge of land and sea, safety and vulnerability, the domestic and the wild. When Stella takes an afternoon swim, she is unprepared for the drama that unfolds. She and a nearby surfer are tracked by a giant great white shark that swims close enough so she can look it in the eye, leaving the two of them deeply traumatised. The surfer – Ben – is a waterman who paints trawlers for a living. There is an almost instant attraction between them, but Stella is married to wealthy American financier Jack Barlow, and she and her husband are preparing to leave the country. Stella and Ben begin a passionate affair. The two of them must face their fear of the water; Stella because beaches and oceans form the basis of her art, Ben because surfing is his passion. Into this situation Jack returns from overseas to tie up their affairs and bring Stella back to New York. Stella must make a choice between the man who has reawakened her original passion for art, and the man who can give her everything else the world has to offer. My Side of the Ocean is a novel of great empathy and insight, exploring essential questions about what it means to live, and love, when the secure foundations of a life have been ripped away. “‘Oh! Always, many.’ He had an inscrutable politeness about him, and this kind of obtuse questioning, for him might be considered rude. I was sensitive to his privacy. His space. This country was still healing from its oppressive past – would always be healing – so we spoke to each other with exaggerated friendliness, an ever-present formaility.” – RON IRWIN – Now here is another book that surprised me even though it is way out of my comfort zone. My Side of The Ocean is a novel about healing and overcoming your fears, it’s a novel about finding yourself again and the need to be one’s true self. * The Trauma: When something terrible is happening to you and you are literally staring death in the face, your entire entire world shatters in a matter of moments. Fear is everything! The hardest part is having to break through that fear enough to be able to rational enough to let self-preservation take over, at the very least. The opening chapters of the book describe this so perfectly that I was gasping for breath after. * The Fear: Having nearly drowned as a young teenager, at a beach we’ve visited all our lives, I have been irrationally afraid of all large bodies of water ever since; I’ll go to the beach if I have to, but I’ll stay far away from the water. The author does an amazing job of carrying Stella’s fears over into the rest of her life and how it affects even her day-to-day routines. * The Characters: Stella was so relatable; like many people, her life has reached a kind of stalemate and she feels stuck in a rut. She is someone with a successful job and marriage with her art now being almost like a hobby; Jack, Stella’s husband, a typical American businessman in the country for his Hedge Fund, just wants to tie up loose ends and go back to New York; Ben, the surfer who suffered the trauma with Stella, is aloof and mysterious, but he fell a little flat for me. * The Setting: Cape Town is simply gorgeous; with a beautiful coastline and evergreen flora the Mother City will take your breath away. Even though I am not personally intimate with the area the author has done an amazing job bringing the atmosphere to life. * The Accuracy: This story takes place during the drought we were experiencing a few years ago (before the Corona Virus outbreak) and Irwin accurately describes the restrictions we faced and how some people were doing their part (and more) while others, like Jack, couldn’t have been bothered. Also, a touch which I thoroughly enjoyed, this book starts each chapter with a specimen of Stella’s artwork (done by Ayanda Phasha) and a fact about sharks and how they inhabit our waters; very nice. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Happy reading!
Whenever a shark attack is reported in the Cape Town press, the predator is almost always a 5m great white. How do they know this? According to The Comprehensive Biology of Sharks and Rays, quoted at the start of this novel, there are over 440 known species of shark on the planet. The coastal waters of South Africa are home to over a quarter of them. There’s a thought to take with you the next time you go swimming in False Bay. But this book is set mainly in the tiny seaside suburb of Bakoven, just down Victoria Road from Clifton and Camps Bay. As Capetonians know, the Atlantic is bitterly cold there, and not known as a haven for sharks. But My Side of the Ocean opens with a terrifying encounter between a big shark, probably a great white, and a swimmer and a surfer. The swimmer is Stella, who is in her mid-30s, an accomplished American artist and academic based at UCT, and who owns a house on the granite rocks above Bakoven. The surfer, we later discover, is Ben, some years younger. The two encounter each other in the waves one weekday afternoon, with Stella slightly irritated that this unknown man is paddling his board so close to her little inlet. But she then realises he is shouting at her, telling her to get out of the water. “I saw a fin. Shark! A big one. It’s tracking you.” She wonders if he has seen a dolphin – you don’t get sharks at Bakoven. But then she realises, from his movements in the water, that this man is familiar with the sea, is a good strong swimmer, and if he thinks he saw a shark he probably did. She starts to swim hard for the beach, and begins to tremble. And then the surfer rolls off his board into the water. He comes up spitting. “It rammed me,” he says, winded. They go on, desperately swimming for the beach when a fin breaks the surface of the water in front of them. As Stella takes a ragged breath, she sees the shark’s eye, staring. She is terrified her legs, flashing through the water, will be ripped from her body. They reach the beach, shaking. (This is not a spoiler – it all happens in the first chapter.) It is an extraordinarily dramatic chapter, and you think the rest of the novel will be something of an anti-climax. And yet it isn’t. Stella’s husband Jack, an international financier, is closing down his business links to South Africa, telling her the country is toast. The couple is about to move back to New York. The house is on the market. Stella, who takes both artistic inspiration and spiritual sustenance from the sea, can’t bear the thought of leaving her little home on the rocks. Yet Jack, busy in New York, is determined to go. The SA economy is junked, “totally junked”. Half of his investors aren’t even allowed to invest in the country any more, he tells Stella. Stella hesitates. Plus Ben has been round. They have bonded over their near-death experience and start a passionate affair He’s young, free, a swimmer. Also beautiful. Jack breezes back into town, causing something of a crisis. And then a terrible storm hits the Atlantic coast, and no one is sure that the old bungalow on the rocks can withstand such a devastating north-westerly gale. The beauty and some of the ugly side of Cape Town is laid bare in this riveting novel. The mountains, the surging sea, the different patterns of light on the water at Bakoven, are all glorious. The novel is set pre-Covid, during Cape Town’s water crisis, and Stella often collects water from the Newlands spring. There also a hilarious email chain among UCT academics over the discovery of a rat in a lecture theatre, when Stella saves the day. It rings so true that one wonders if author Ron Irwin, an academic at UCT, lightly disguised a real episode. There are several passages about the process of creating art based on the ocean, so that the reader can see in their mind’s eye the blues and greens of the seascape Stella is painting. I have a couple of niggles. For a novel set so firmly in a Cape Town we know, one particular moment jars. After the encounter with the shark Ben is too upset to drive his VW Beetle home, so catches a train. From Bakoven? There’s also a reference to the “modest suburban homes of Camps Bay”. When did Irwin last drive down Camps Bay Drive? And minuscule is spelt like that, not miniscule. But those are tiny reservations. The novel is wonderful, absorbing and beautifully written. Well worth reading.
March 11, 2023
You Magazine: Thought-Provoking Reads - Gerry Waldem
American artist Stella Wright lives in a beautiful beach house in Cape Town, right next to the sea that she loves to paint. One windy afternoon while swimming she hears a surfer shouting at her to get ashore as there's a shark nearby. The great white comes so close to her she can see into its unblinking eye and is convinced she’s about to die. After their narrow escape, she and the young surfer, Ben, try to help each other through the trauma and find a way to regain the courage to get back into the ocean that plays such a key role in both their lives. There's an almost instant attraction between them - but things are complicated by the fact that Stella is due to leave South Africa to return to America with her wealthy husband. In the wake of her harrowing experience, Stella begins to reassess everything in her life and is forced to confront her choices. This book grew on me the further I went into it. I found it fascinating that as a male author, Irwin writes so convincingly from Stella's perspective - theres not a single misstep or fact that doesn't ring true in this intriguing tale of love, loss, decisions and consequences.
It’s easy to be enchanted by this story if you are a swimmer, a painter, or just a lover of the sea. But if you’re more inclined to “think strategically” in terms of investments and monetising everything in sight, this book will enhance neither your happiness nor your self-image. This gorgeous romance is set in Cape Town, with flashbacks to New York, and each chapter begins with an illustration of some species of shark drawn by the narrator of this story. She is Stella Wright, a painter of seascapes and an academic – a visiting lecturer at the university in Cape Town. It has the feeling of a fairytale or fantasy, because she is an American “princess”, (that is very rich), living in an old bungalow on the great boulders of Bakoven, with her university job, her two studios, and a tiny beach she calls “her” beach. All this and worldwide acclaim for her paintings. But like all good fairytales it has a serious meaning, and in this case it is to remind us of our vulnerability in this world, and to ask us to consider what is really important in life. Stella’s narration carries us forward effortlessly, is stylishly written and laced with erudite references to Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Hume and such, as well as titles of paintings she might work on. Her idyllic life changes forever when her daily swim off the rocks is invaded by a strange man on a surfboard and a large great white shark. This creature tracks and circles them both as they swim frantically for the shore. It leaves two teeth embedded in the board and a large bruise on the man’s ribs. This terrifying experience shocks them both in reality and symbolically, with long-lasting consequences, even though no blood was shed. This novel is a love song to Cape Town in all its beauty and diversity. The sea, vast and changing, is always there. And Stella may be rich and successful but she’s a mensch and hardworking. She sees and relates to ordinary Capetonians in a refreshingly unSouth African way; these people are her Malawian gardener and fixer of her weather-beaten house, the scrap dealers with their horse cart who appropriate a surfboard she has left on the beach but are happy to accept R400 hard cash for it, her Fine Art students and the surfer, Ben, who has shared a life-changing moment with her. She makes herself part of the city by taking the drought and water shortage seriously, and is one of those who queue to get water from the Newlands spring, helped by a young guy with a trolley who “Ubers” her container for her. Working as a serious painter and artmaker features throughout – in her own work Rothko comes to mind in the intense evocation of colour and light suffused with emotional power. And in her accounts of university life she takes her students’ work and their future as practising artists seriously. She does somewhat take the mickey out of academia, however, in some hilarious exchanges via email and WhatsApp. One of these concerns a dead rat in a lecture room. She also cooks up some seriously ridiculous essay topics. And there is the genuinely important issue of whether it is okay to exhibit in a city-wide exhibition that is financed by “minority capital” – that is, a bank. Irwin also airs the use of the internet to market artworks via Instagram and the like. This cannot be discounted these days. In the course of these debates Irwin raises the names of Igshaan Adams and El Anatsui, world-renowned African artists. If this novel brings these to more public notice it will have done well. There is rather too much noting of stuff in this novel – too many brand names. This is annoying and likely to limit its readership. Details of clothes, haircuts and nailpolish do sometimes serve to delineate character, however, and one of the best sketches has to do with a look at the interior of the surfer Ben’s delapidated Volkwagen. All this is offset against the life lived by Mandla, the Malawian, who has found a way to hide and survive in the xenophobic sidelines of Cape Town. He is Stella’s main ally in resisting her husband Jack, whose plan is to sell the bungalow because his reading of the investment climate is that it is time for them to get out of “junked” South Africa and return to New York. Irwin has done a truly acceptable job of rendering a woman’s inner life, especially her experience of having her life decisions appropriated by her well-meaning but obtuse husband. He clearly thinks she is another investment or commodity. When the house is almost destroyed by a killer storm, he takes an Uber to a hotel but she stays. This will resonate with many South Africans who currently have their homes and livelihoods threatened by heavy weather of several kinds. Irwin’s writing is often superb, as in this description of the eye of the great white, very close up: “An eye that reflected nothing, that might have seen me and might not have. Not the eye of a terrestrial animal, nor the eye of a kindred soul, but an eye that might be placed on a reptile or a machine. An eye of a thing that did not know pity or fear or introspection and had no memory or emotion or warmth or family. A dark portal that simply saw and did not blink and would not look away. An eye that piloted the creature through water with pitiless grace, an eye that would not avert its gaze when it closed its jaws around another living thing …” This is one of the bleaker passages in a beautiful, memorable novel that affirms our agency and the joy of working in the arts.
13 February, 2022
It is no mistake that Ron Irwin’s riveting novel 'My Side Of The Ocean' is set in Cape Town against the backdrop of the crippling drought. He captures a landscape that is both beautiful and welcoming yet increasingly more inhospitable and this is conveyed cleverly through the lens of people not native to this country. The story is told through the central protagonist Stella Wright, a New York artist who has achieved some fame with her paintings. She also works as a guest lecturer at UCT and is married to Jack – her extremely wealthy husband. Whilst Stella’s life may represent an ideal – she is a flawed character for whom the stakes are high as she possesses a wonky heart. Despite being afforded the best medical care money can buy the threat of succumbing to her illness is not nearly enough to galvanise her into action – hence the utterly terrifying and gripping trauma she experiences with a young surfer in the novel’s inception which serves as a catalyst to propel her into a more fulfilling way of being. Irwin’s skill as a storyteller is manifested immediately as we encounter the pairs traumatic experience when confronted with a great white shark. It is a heart stoppingly good introduction that fully immerses the reader in the grips of unimaginable fear and danger. Irwin is a masterful writer who seamlessly weaves experiences of the past and present together punctuated by a cast of characters so real they virtually leap out of the page with their distinct voices, features and scents. I found myself laughing and crying in equal measure at the human nature portrayed. The ensuing relationship between Stella and Ben is beautifully nuanced avoiding any of that saccharine tweeness that sometimes accompanies a burgeoning romance. Stella’s financier husband Jack is a bit of a stereotype and for that reason is immediately recognisable. I wondered how the narrative might be enriched were he not so stereotypically drawn. However, this is a small criticism and ultimately the unfolding story is not about him. Each chapter is introduced with a drawing of a shark which adds layers to the story – along with the vivid descriptions of Stella’s artwork – which is concerned largely with the ocean, and its varied moods and colours. It is unsurprising that her proverbial ‘call to adventure’ comes from the place she feels most connected to – the ocean serving as a mirror to her own fears and emotions. This is explored consistently throughout and serves to provide a powerful and fulfilling denouement. I am reminded of a favourite quote from Scottish author A.L. Kennedy that for me sums up something that lies at the heart of this story: “But the silent majority and I do have one memorial, at least. The Disaster. We have small lives, easily lost in foreign droughts, or famines; the occasional incendiary incident, or a wall of pale faces, crushed against grillwork, one Saturday afternoon in Spring. This is not enough.” 'My Side Of The Ocean' is a moving portrait about life in an unequal society where the chasms grow seemingly greater every day. It is about frailty and connection through disaster, and it feels particularly relevant to our current zeitgeist.
1 February, 2023
Congratulations on the publication of your second novel My side of the Ocean. I started reading the manuscript last year after 1 in the morning and completed this compelling book at 4.30 in the morrow. 1. Flat Water Tuesday was your debut in 2013, a novel reflecting on male culture and rowing. Is this novel semi-autobiographical? “Yes, very much so. Most of my work has some basis in my own life, but Flat Water Tuesday is really a novelisation of my experience as a rower at an elite American boarding school...and navigating life a decade or so after graduation. It took me quite a long time to write because I found it difficult to return to some of the events of that time. The people who are making the film of Flat Water Tuesday have found a way to recreate the kinetic experience of rowing in a fast boat using new technology, which is very exciting. I also think that modern readers and audiences are ready for realistic movies about the complexities of teenage life and how the challenges of our formative years shape us as adults. My Side of the Ocean is less autobiographical but it does address issues that have been on my mind for some time. The main premise of the novel--a woman who comes face to face with a shark close to shore while she is swimming--is based upon a story I was told by a South African paddle boarder. I think the most important part of the novel is exploring how people react to the sudden but sure realisation that life is finite. I wanted to explore what happens when this ceases to be just an academic question and really gets brought home to a character. All of us have this moment in life, when it becomes crystal clear we are not on earth forever and we need to react to this knowledge. All of us understand the concept of death, but there is a time when we have to accept the reality of death, and that’s a whole 'nother ball of wax, as they say.” 2. You grew up in Buffalo, New York and are currently a senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies. You also worked as a freelance documentary filmmaker and journalist. You also completed two MAs: one in Creative Writing; the other in Literary Theory. A PhD in Media Studies. Different hats, so to speak. How do you navigate your different roles a teacher in branding, mentor for many students and your work as novelist? “I like to say that there is no greater preparation for creating popular fiction than branding, which requires a kind of dramatic flair (to say the least!). And teaching is almost a kind of liberation from the rigours of writing and rewriting... I suppose I could teach almost anything and feel a kind of relief from the exhausting demands of producing a novel. I also think that the modern novelist has to be a student of media: video, social media, advertising, personal brand building, blogging, podcasting, radio, you name it. The days of being a reclusive author living in a bunker like JD Salinger or in a cabin like Cormac McCarthy are over. Even Cormac is now giving interviews to major outlets about his recent fiction. And he has to do this. Bret Easton Ellis's new smash novel The Shards is based upon a popular podcast he started during Covid and critics say it represents his best work since American Psycho, which was published in 1990. Today, unlike when I started, we have young writers building their own followings online and writing for them, producing novel-length work in just a month and self-publishing for thousands of eager followers. We have new voices demanding attention and of course every single novel competes for eyeballs (horrible use of the word) against the seductive pleasures of the phone and unlimited options on the living room flat screen. Social media is now where most people learn about new novels. And now we have AI in the form of ChatGPT and variations of it, which could be a massive transformative moment. So an awareness of how media works is really part of every creative person's life now. The same goes for artists of every kind, as well as musicians, salespeople and any kind of craftsman or designer. We are all in the same boat. If we want our work to be seen and bought, the use of different media platforms is the way to do it. Even graffiti artists are in on it.” 3. J.M. Coetzee was a mentor. What implicit advice did this Master of Writing gave you? “Prof. Coetzee was the most meticulous and disciplined writer I have ever encountered. When I first met him, I expected a much more expansive type of person, but he really was a dedicated and tireless worker. He had a kind of iron discipline that I do not think I possess, very few people possess it. His capacity to revise and revise again was unbelievable. He demanded a kind of meticulous attention to the craft and all of its sometimes mundane details that every writer needs to develop in one way or another. It was the daily rigour of working with him that I remember most.” 4. Your new novel could be read as an episodic novel using the eye of a shark to tell the story: “The main character and narrator of the novel is a displaced American artist named Stella Wright. Each chapter begins with an artistic representation of a different kind of shark endemic to the waters of South Africa that is a recreation of Stella's work. There is also a short description of the shark (or an anatomical part of the shark). The shark images and the descriptions of them illustrate Stella's evolving relationship with sharks, from one of fear to one of fascination and acceptance. Each shark rendition and description tells the reader a little more about the main character's relationship not just with sharks, but with the possibility of death itself, and by that same token, the possibility of life. There are about 440 species of sharks in the world and South Africa is home to about a quarter of them, representing all major families. These waters are without a doubt one of the great havens for the animal. And humans have a very tenuous relationship with sharks. To many, a shark represents a kind of mindless death. There is something very primal about our fear of being torn apart in the water...maybe even pre-primal. Yet, from another perspective, sharks are an important and crucial part of life on earth. They have been here hundreds of millions of years before us and will probably see humankind off to extinction relatively soon. From their point of view, our experiences and struggles are exceedingly temporary.” 5. I versus eye. How do you see the implications of the so-called multi-focal novel? “Stella sees the world in a certain way at the start of the novel, and sees it in a far different way at the end. As an artist she can imagine herself, and representations of herself, which is interesting. But she also has to imagine a new reality for herself after a traumatic experience in the water with a massive shark that leads her into an affair. Part of having a secret affair is the desire to see one's self in a different light, to briefly step into a new reality or experience a reality you might have had if you didn't make certain choices in life. Stella is an artist who enjoys the unlimited support of an adoring husband, but realises this is not enough, that she needs to return to a more authentic existence. This awareness comes to her after the abrupt realisation that her life could be cut short at any time, and she would have left an important part of it unlived.” 6. Melville’s Moby Dick is an implicit intertext. I recall you listening to Harold Bloom’s lecture on YouTube whilst writing the novel. Comment. “Moby Dick is of course a far more ambitious novel than mine, yet we still see the idea of returning to the sea, of deadly animals there being a focus of concern, attention, and ultimately obsession. Ahab wants to literally destroy the white whale; Stella wants to get over the fear a great white shark has instilled in her by painting and drawing it. I think also the affair she enters into with another person who loves the water--Ben, a surfer--is illustrative of how two people use whatever is at hand to conquer their fears. Melville was playing with an idea that essay-like examinations of men at work on the sea would yield a greater understanding of the nature of being human, and the nature of obsession. Tolstoy has similar asides in War and Peace about combat and family. Stella's asides in the novel about painting and teaching offer us insight into her own state of mind. To use rather awkward contemporary language, Ahab is the ultimate trauma survivor, just as Stella is. Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick is an obsession to right the injustice of the past, to enquire into the damage done to him, to smooth out a massive shift in his own reality when the hunter briefly became the hunted. The Pequod sinks under Ahab's obsession, as does Stella's marriage and her home, which faces the wrath of a Cape storm. Both novels end with the final destruction of the previous reality, and the possibility of survival into a new existence. The last page of Moby Dick (before the Epilogue), I feel, is one of the greatest endings in western literature.” 7. The perspective of a female narrator/focalisator is quite daring for a male writer. But you convinced me that you understand the psyche of a woman. Coetzee also accomplished this with Elizabeth Costello. How did you enter the mind of a woman? “I find that in fiction the actual voice that comes to you from the character genders itself. Writing from a heterosexual woman's view is difficult at one level: men tend to internalise their thoughts and feelings and especially their fears, whereas more than one woman reader has told me this character would probably share her experiences and her trauma with other women. But she engages in a secret affair with a younger man, which is forbidden on two levels due to his age and her being married. So Stella is stuck with her decisions and cannot confide in many friends about her experience. She is also based upon a driven, rather prickly artist that I know in real life, who eschews most rational forms of female friendship but is quite demanding and tactical in her romantic adventures. One editor suggested that perhaps this artistic woman would not want to leave a wealthy older (but not much older) husband who adores her and buys her whatever she wants, including a gorgeous studio in New York. My experience is that quite a few people would seriously consider leaving comfortable relationships for dangerous and exciting but doomed relationships. I think this is an all-too-human impulse.” 8. Your novel deals with the complexities of the modern campus. Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall, etcetera. Could we read this as a modern campus novel? For instance, Vladímír by Julia May Jonas criticising the woke culture on campuses. “I am not sure I criticise "woke" culture on campus, but there are amusing academic peccadillos that I shine a light upon. I have been involved with UCT for almost my entire adult life. I have worked in the English, Commerce and Media Studies departments. And there are more political currents I discover on campus that I find amusing and funny than really disturbing or worthy of fictional representation. But the fact is that instructors are under a great deal of pressure to conform to a fairly rigid set of rules that do seem arbitrary and ever- changing from one perspective. Stella teaches studio art, and supervising creative work is much different than supervising an academic project. I have supervised a few dozen creative MA degrees for the UCT Centre for Creative Writing and there is almost always a point where the relationship becomes slightly personal, where one is put in the position where students might need to talk about uncomfortable subjects that are routine in fiction: divorce, addiction, infidelity, violence, lust and many other things that one cannot avoid if one is going to write about reality that adults face. All of these are potentially tricky territories for an instructor and there has to be a level of comfort and mutual trust between the student and the instructor when one is talking about them. The current campus climate makes this rather difficult, perhaps rightly so in some cases. On the other hand, these subjects cannot be avoided if the student is going to get their money's worth from the project.” 9. Or a modern love story with a woman experiencing liminalities: Ben in Perth, Jack in New York. What is the story-line for you? Why the names Stella and Mandla? “This novel looks at the somewhat precarious life that thousands of expatriates like me live here in Cape Town. We can fly in and out at will, and a good many of us are here for the sun, the wine and the beaches. Whole swathes of the Cape shores are dominated by bungalows and vacation homes owned by people in the UK, America, Germany and so forth. Their attachment to the country is minimal, and when one is enjoying life on that side of the city it is easy to feel one has entered into a comfortably precarious zone where people can be unconcerned by the tribulations of life here in the Cape. Stella starts out like this, but the realities of water shortage, crime (suffered by her gardener, Mandla), and the gritty beauty of the place make her want to know more. Her husband, a New York financier, has no such interest. To him, Cape Town is a place of dwindling financial possibility and gorgeous views. But for Stella, and for many others, Cape Town is much more than that. The country itself offers her a chance of self-renewal. And yes, Africa has always been seen as a place where people from overseas can come and reinvent themselves, often at the expense of the locals. I remember reading an essay that explored the idea that white Europeans are often presented in films and novels as arriving in Africa on an airplane, and the ability to fly away from what happens "on the ground" is a key feature of the outsider experience. Think of Out of Africa or West With the Night: the image of the colonial white person behind the stick of an airplane flitting over the endless vastness of Africa is powerful and troubling, although now they are simply sitting in the front of an Airbus, I suppose. But many people choose to reinvent themselves here as more concerned about their fellow human beings, more in touch with nature and the sea, and indeed their own art and self-expression. The names were chosen because my wife worked for a very successful South African artist named Stella Shawzin years ago, and I once employed a multi-skilled builder called Mandla, which means "strength" in Zulu.” 10. In Julia May Jonas’s novel a fire destructs a house and the only copy of the narrator’s novel. Here a storm lurks: We lost another door at around 3 a.m. The framework simply tore out of the walls and then fell down with a splash into the flooded lounge, exposing the living room and the kitchen to the storm and the pitiless ocean. A single sheet of water lay over the pool, the terrace, the living room. The outside furniture was submerged. Water ran furiously down the stairs. The house was rocking back and forth. While Mandla continued bringing paintings and tools into the relative safety of the garage, Jack and I climbed up to the bedroom. He had brought up plastic bags. “Put in whatever is valuable.” (164) Why this paranoia or angoisse in modern novels? Does it represent the Zeitgeist? “I think many modern novels are concerned with themes of uprooting and transience, as well as the impressions of foreigners in strange lands. I am not sure if it really is a "paranoia" but instead a focus on what lies behind the kind of massive change that is sometimes part of growth. Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News is about a man who goes up to Newfoundland and "finds" himself, and embedded in this narrative is a house that is literally anchored to the rocks it has been built upon. At the end of the novel it becomes "unanchored" and literally blows apart, which represent a kind of coda to a tragic family history of abuse. I had that in mind, as well as the destruction of the Pequod, when I wrote the end of My Side of the Ocean...not least because so many houses on the coasts of Cape Town do indeed suffer enormous storm damage. While I was writing the novel, in fact, a massive storm hit the Camps Bay area and practically wrote the scene for me. Stella's house is actually based upon a real house that was owned by friends of mine in the publishing world. I did change some things about it to fit the narrative, but the problems of living right next to the sea were the problems my friends faced: everything rusts, the wood gets sodden, the foundations of the house seem tenuous, and the wind and the waves are a constant noise--sometimes reassuring, sometimes frightening. The “problems” of immense privilege, I concede. The main character also, after the major storm, has to come to grips with what happens to her gardener, Mandla, whose much simpler home is also destroyed. Without revealing too much about this, I can say that this scene was taken from reality...we were at one point trying to help people were living in sea caves outside of town. This experience has haunted me. We in South Africa have the biggest divide of wealth in the world. Our fashionable beach houses and mansions are built near shacks and temporary dwellings. It is very hard to reconcile this, but fiction offers a means to begin to do so.” 11. Reflect on the meaning of art in this novel. And how do you see the future of the modern novel? “In this novel, art is certainly a tool the main character uses to address her own trauma, but also a means of measuring her authenticity. Much of what the novel is about is the artist's attempt to recapture a sense of her former, more authentic, grittier self. Art is a means through which she also traces her feelings about sharks, and the many different sharks we have here ranging from smaller pyjama sharks all the way to whale sharks, which were first named here in Cape Town. This evolving relationship is of course her relationship with herself, her life, and the possibility (and inevitability) of death. I think the modern novel is going to be greatly affected by technology, in terms of how we read it, how we write it, certainly how we promote it, and how readers find out about it and purchase it. Many of my readers will download My Side of the Ocean into their phones or "mobile devices" (surely a Swiss army knife is also a "mobile device"? But I digress). Many readers will learn about my novel on Instagram or Facebook. None of this stuff existed when I first started writing, and now they are as much a part of book publishing as paper and ink. I also think that voices that have often been backgrounded will find bigger audiences. It is now possible for writers and publishers with very limited means to reach a very wide audience, and for the first time possibly ever there is a mainstream desire for novels from the former periphery. It is interesting to see that JM Coetzee has decided to release his new novel in Spanish first, with a focus on non-English speaking regions, and only later in English. My Side of the Ocean is being published in South Africa first, unlike Flat Water Tuesday, which came out in the United States months before it was distributed here. In the last twenty years I have seen South African voices eagerly accepted overseas and, most importantly, in their own country. It is incredibly exciting.”
Eye: Sharks have an almost 360-degree field of vision and see ten times better than humans. Contrary to popular belief, the eye of a great white shark is not black. It is a very dark blue. Colored Pencil Drawing (one of many), from Stella Wright’s Private Collection, Cape Town (13)
‘This novel grips you and doesn’t let go.
A thoroughly enjoyable read.’
- Paige Nick
‘A compelling love story with a twist. An engrossing and thought-provoking read that highlights the fragility of life and love, and the power of the choices we make.’
- Jassy Mackenzie
‘Imbued with the moods of the sea, this is a powerful novel told with deep empathy about landscape and love, emigration, loss, and facing your fears.’
- Justin Fox
“A wonderful, deceptively powerful story in its elegiac simplicity, speaking of love and the dark, unlived, and all too often, untold secrets of our hearts. There is a deep poignancy in the story that reminds us all to find some way to choose the truths of what we unexpectedly discover about ourselves.
It is filled with the majestic, but troubled, beauty of Cape Town today, and it shimmers with a quiet, unrelenting passion emerging from the fragility that haunts us all, watched over by the dark, elemental gaze of this, our, side of the ocean.
I couldn’t put it down. It is a deeply touching reminder of why so many of us choose South Africa to live out the sometimes brittle, but enduring promise of our lives.”
- Hamilton Wende