The best African books that don’t have much to say about Africa

Michiel Heyns Author Of A Poor Season for Whales
By Michiel Heyns

Who am I?

As an African author, I find that my books end up on the ‘African fiction’ shelf in the bookstore, which can be a disadvantage if my novel is, say, about Henry James or the Trojan War, both of which I've written novels about. As a lecturer in English literature, I've become acquainted with a vast and varied array of literature. So, whereas of course there are many wonderful African novels that deal with specifically African themes, I think the label African novel can be constricting and commercially disadvantageous. Many African novelists see themselves as part of a larger community, and their novels reflect that perspective, even though they are nominally set in Africa.

I wrote...

A Poor Season for Whales

By Michiel Heyns,

Book cover of A Poor Season for Whales

What is my book about?

My first novel, The Children’s Day, was, like many first novels, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel.   Perhaps it is appropriate that this, my ninth, should be the contrary: an account of a middle-aged divorcée’s attempt to make a clean start away from her family, friends, and ‘appurtenances’ in a new town, with only her dog as company. But, of course, she discovers that appurtenances are not to be eschewed at will. An impudent young man of questionable motive seems to be intent on infiltrating her life; her children keep on turning up and disrupting her ‘retreat,’ and even her domestic servant refuses to abandon her. It’s a serious look at the stickiness of human relations, but, I hope, also funny in its depiction of the perils of attempted withdrawal. 

The books I picked & why

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In a Strange Room

By Damon Galgut,

Book cover of In a Strange Room

Why this book?

Damon Galgut recently won the Booker Prize for his riveting, satirical The Promise, but, much as I admire that novel, Galgut’s earlier (also Booker-nominated) semi-autobiographical novel, In a Strange Room, remains my favourite. It comprises three long short stories, all centred on a character called Damon, alerting us to the autobiographical element of the stories. And yet Galgut resists the total identification of autobiography, partly by his device of switching disconcertingly between first and third-person narration (sometimes ‘Damon,’ sometimes ‘I’), and present and past tenses. But the novel is more than technical trickery: the shifting perspectives allow us different angles on the complex relationships depicted in the different sections, rather as a cubist painting affords us a multifarious perspective on its subject. And like other books on this list, this one features a protagonist who travels: something of a trope in South African writing.  

The Third Reel

By S. J. Naudé,

Book cover of The Third Reel

Why this book?

The ex-pat novel has become something of a South African genre, what with many young people searching for new opportunities overseas, in flight from the old repressive racist regime or, latterly, the corrupt, inefficient new regime. In his debut collection of short stories, The Alphabet of Birds, Naudé referred to "the diaspora of fearful, grim, white children from South Africa," and this novel is another variation on that theme. It’s easy to fall into stereotype and cliché, and part of Naudé’s achievement is to remake the familiar scenario into something wholly original, in an account of his main character’s search for the missing reel of a film made by a Jewish filmmaker in Hitler’s Germany.

The novel contains vivid accounts of life in a ‘squat’ in London, as well as the grim atmosphere of an East German film school under Russian occupation – contrasting with the hedonistic excess of West Berlin nightclubs. As these examples suggest, Naudé moves with ease between countries and settings; perhaps an unexpected benefit of the estrangement many young South Africans feel from their country. Beautifully translated from the Afrikaans by the author. 

False River

By Dominique Botha,

Book cover of False River

Why this book?

This is at heart a coming-of-age novel, unshrinkingly autobiographical in its depiction of what is clearly the author’s own family and background: the privileged upbringing on a prosperous farm in the centre of South Africa, the elite schools she and her beloved brother, Paul, attend, the tensions between her stern father and the rebellious brother. All recounted in a deadpan faux-naïve voice, which is often hilarious but also needle-sharp in its puncturing of the posturings and pretensions of upper-middle-class white South Africans. But at the centre of the largely satirical account is the tragic story of the decline and fall of the beautiful, talented, hyper-sensitive Paul and his early death from a drug overdose. A masterpiece of controlled perspective and flexible tone. 

My Beautiful Death

By Eben Venter,

Book cover of My Beautiful Death

Why this book?

Eben Venter, though born in the heart of the South African ‘platteland’ (the South African equivalent of ‘fly-over country’), has spent much of his adult life in Australia, and the novel poignantly straddles the two locales: the constricting conservatism of the protagonist’s farm background, and the bewildering freedoms and opportunities of a more cosmopolitan setting. Here that conflict is heartbreakingly acted out and in a grim sense resolved in the main character’s losing battle against AIDS, and his death-bed reconciliation with his hitherto unbending father. Venter gives us a harrowing account of what it is like to die of a disease that wastes your body, blinds you, and makes you mad before killing you. It is all the more remarkable that the experience is registered from the inside, as it were, in a subjective stream of consciousness. The poignancy of the novel is intensified for me by knowing that the doomed protagonist is in fact a fictionalised tribute to the author’s brother, who died of AIDS.

The Distance

By Ivan Vladislavic,

Book cover of The Distance

Why this book?

Taking stock of my selections, I realise that they are all to some degree autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Just why I am attracted to this genre I don’t know: perhaps I am fascinated by the technical challenge of finding a narrative voice that is both personal and detached, of impersonalising emotions that could easily just be self-indulgent. Humour is often useful here, and Vladislavics’s novel is richly humorous, in its (lightly fictionalised) account of a culturally challenging boyhood in Pretoria, at the time the whitest and most conservative city in South Africa (interestingly, also the setting for Galgut’s The Promise). Young Joe, the stand-in for the author has, apart from an addiction to reading, a consuming interest in Muhammed Ali, and has kept a scrapbook of every newspaper item he could find relating to the great boxer. The bookworm-boxing addict is entirely engaging, as brought to life by a master storyteller. 

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