Other Lives

by Andre Brink

This novel is composed of overlapping stories about three men in modern South Africa, whose lives are subtly interconnected. In the first two tales, the protagonist faces a sudden change which makes him question his very identity. A painter arrives at his studio to find an unknown family waiting for him; they enfold him into their lives with total familiarity, yet he has no idea who they are. When in confusion and guilt (at how delightful he finds this new woman who thinks she\’s his wife) he tries to return to the home he remembers, there ensues a Kafkaesque scene of frightening futility as he cannot locate his old apartment in the building. He has no choice but to return to his new family, now afraid of exposing how much he is a stranger to them.

The second story is about a successful white man who is an architect. He wakens one day to find that his skin color has suddenly, inexplicably changed- it is now black. At first terrified of being discovered as an intruder in his own home, he soon realizes that no one else notices anything amiss. Yet his sense of self has altered so much he cannot help acting differently to those around him- with some disturbing results.

The last story lacks a sudden, dreamlike change as impetus; its surreal elements move in undertones. It centers around the relationship of a concert pianist and the beautiful, famous soprano singer he accompanies. He is strongly attracted to her, but all her previous relationships ended badly, with suspicious and mysterious deaths. She makes him promise he will never, ever touch her. She says \”I cannot risk dividing my concentration\”- professing a need to focus all her passion on her music. But then they find themselves alone in her family\’s old, half-abandoned rambling farmhouse…

As the characters each engage in self-examination, many secrets they keep from each other become slowly revealed, betrayals that link each story to the next like threads twisted under the ground. Sex is a large part of these stories; some scenes are tender, others rather horrific. I have to say the architect\’s confrontation of his children\’s au-pair disturbed me the most. I found the first two stories more fascinating, the last one lost me at the beginning with a plethora of musical references (mostly names) unfamiliar to me. Mention of culture and political situations in South Africa went over my head as well, but did not detract from my enjoyment of the book, which I could hardly put down. Trust (or lack of it), self-identity and racism are all strong themes in Other Lives, which raises unsettling questions: how well can we know each other? and: how well do we even know ourselves? Like my last experiences reading short stories, the endings left so many unanswered puzzles- and yet that made them all the more intriguing to me.

This title I received as an ARC from Sourcebooks.

Rating: 4/5               321 pages, 2008

6 Responses

  1. I\’m not sure about all of the sex (depends on how it is portrayed–and the word \”horrific\” kind of scares me off a little, but other than that it sounds like a fascinating book. I had hoped to read more about Africa this year, but that hasn\’t really worked out as planned (although I\’m reading Half of a Yellow Sun right now). Thanks for the review of this one, Jeane!

  2. Maybe horrific was too strong a word, I really only felt that way about one scene. Usually I don\’t like books that feature lots of sex, but in this one it was more describing the mood of such moments, or the characters\’ thoughts about them, than going into every little detail of the act. So I didn\’t mind it so much. Except it seemed to be on everyone\’s mind all the time.

  3. This sounds really fascinating and I will definately look out for it. I love books that play with reality and mix up all we find familiar. The first 2 stories certainly sound most interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. After all my South Africa through Gordimer this year it might be a good idea to try a different South African writer, I will add him to the list. Sounds like a really interesting read.

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