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

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. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of In a Strange Room

Michiel Heyns Why did I love 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.  

By Damon Galgut,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In a Strange Room as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A young man takes three journeys, through Greece, India and Africa. He travels lightly, simply. To those who travel with him and those whom he meets on the way - including a handsome, enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers and a woman on the edge - he is the Follower, the Lover and the Guardian. Yet, despite the man's best intentions, each journey ends in disaster. Together, these three journeys will change his whole life.

A novel of longing and thwarted desire,…

Book cover of The Third Reel

Michiel Heyns Why did I love 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. 

By S. J. Naudé,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Third Reel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Scott Pack: Books of the Year 2018

Shortlisted for The Sunday Times Literary Awards (South Africa)

Twenty-two-year-old Etienne is studying film in London, having fled conscription in his native South Africa. It is 1986, the time of Thatcher, anti-apartheid campaigns and Aids, but also of postmodern art, post-punk rock, and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Adrift in a city cast in shadow, he falls in love with a German artist while living in derelict artists' communes.

When Etienne finds the first of three reels of a German film from the 1930s, he begins searching for the missing reels, a project that…

Book cover of False River

Michiel Heyns Why did I love 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. 

By Dominique Botha,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked False River as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“You are too close to the water,” Paul whispered. “There are barbels in the mud. They will wake up if you step on them.”
When Paul and Dominique are sent to boarding schools in Natal, their idyllic childhood on a Free State farm is over. Their parents’ leftist politics has made life impossible in the local dorp school. Angry schoolboy Paul is a promising poet, his sister his confidant. But his literary awakening turns into a descent. He flees the oppression of South Africa, only to meet his death in London.
Dominique Botha’s poignant debut is an elegy to a…

Book cover of My Beautiful Death

Michiel Heyns Why did I love 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.

By Eben Venter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Beautiful Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Konstant Wasserman rebels against his people, culture and country. In his own words: I’m going to get the hell away from here and make the life I want somewhere else.

Thus he migrates to Sydney, Australia where he slips into a new way of life: a vegetarian diet, a crazy hairstyle and an adventure with the sexually ambivalent Jude. With this “dark horse” of his he arrives at places where he’d never wanted to go.

In the Wollondilly wilderness west of Sydney he discovers the first symptoms of a terminal disease. Now his real journey starts.

Book cover of The Distance

Michiel Heyns Why did I love 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. 

By Ivan Vladislavic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Distance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the spring of 1970, a Pretoria schoolboy, Joe, becomes obsessed with Muhammad Ali. He begins collecting daily newspaper clippings about him, a passion that grows into an archive of scrapbooks. Forty years later, when Joe has become a writer, these scrapbooks become the foundation for a memoir of his childhood. When he calls upon his brother, Branko, for help uncovering their shared past, meaning comes into view in the spaces between then and now, growing up and growing old, speaking out and keeping silent.

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The Edge of Too Late

By Jan Sikes,

Book cover of The Edge of Too Late

Jan Sikes Author Of The Edge of Too Late

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Who am I?

Author Avid reader Lover of Music Astral Traveler Tarot Reader Grandmother

Jan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

What's the point of having it all when you have no one to share it with? Brandon Miller has everything—except a commitment from the woman he loves. Angela Cooper has deep scars from a previous marriage. She's not interested in a do-over with Brandon or anyone.

Yet, he arranges a romantic getaway to the historic Harbor Pointe Inn, where he plans to propose. Angela's got her camera in hand and ghosts on her mind, but they arrive to find a much more tangible horror. Accident or foul play? Angela becomes the next target, and when suspects can be worldly or otherworldly, danger and secrets lurk everywhere. Poised at the perilous edge of too late, Angela and Brandon face the fight of their lives.

The Edge of Too Late

By Jan Sikes,

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