Thursday, September 22, 2011

REVIEW: The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by Jacques Strauss

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by Jacques Strauss. Published 2011 by FSG. Literary Fiction.

When I stumbled across The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by South African writer Jacques Strauss, it just sort of looked like the kind of thing I'd like. I have had some great luck with South African writers in the recent past, and I liked the book's description: a kid coming of age, a tragic mistake, and a rich, fascinating cultural landscape.  And so it seems my instincts have served me well yet again.

It's 1989 and Jack Viljee is 11 when the story opens, a bright child lacking understanding. He lives with his parents and sisters in South Africa in the twilight years of apartheid. Change, as it were, is in the air but it's not here, not yet. His is a mixed Afrikaans/English family, putting him in the dead center of South African white cultural conflict and giving him an unclear sense of his own identity.

He torments Rachel, the younger of the two, and is mostly ignored by the older.  Susie, the family maid, is like a second mother to him. His best friend, Petrus, is a "moffie" (slang for gay) who's growing up with rigid, tough parents. Conflict takes place when Susie's son Percy sees Jack doing something very personal one day. Jack, distraught that he might say something to someone, says something first, and what he says and what happens to Percy in the aftermath make up that from which Jack seeks salvation.

Jack V. is author Jacques Strauss's debut novel and the story is a compelling character study of a time and a place. He immerses the reader in South African life, albeit a privileged version of that life. He senses the power he has in his society but he's unsure about how, or if, to exercise it; he may think of Susie as a surrogate mother but he needs to understand that her point of view, and that of her son, is very different, and he needs to understand how his own position within South African society has shaped how he understands these things. That's a tall order for an 11 year old.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The writing is crisp and entertaining, humorous and dark at the same time. Strauss has written a very good first novel. I'm definitely going to keep my eye out for whatever comes next from this promising new talent.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from FSG.