Book reviews, Literary fiction

Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Book and Brew reviewer Jasmin Kirkbride gives us her take on Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

Katya Grubbs, like her father before her, deals in ‘the unlovely and unloved’. Yet in contrast to her father, she is not in the business of pest extermination, but pest relocation.

Katya’s unconventional approach brings her to the attention of a property developer whose luxury estate on the fringes of Cape Town, Nineveh, remains uninhabited thanks to an infestation of mysterious insects. As Katya is drawn ever deeper into the chaotic urban wilderness of Nineveh, she must confront unwelcome intrusions from her own past.

What’s good about it?

From the outset, Nineveh is characterised by vibrant insectoid imagery: the opening chapter focuses on a tree that has been colonised by caterpillars, for example. In the hands of any other author, such a motif might make your skin crawl, but under Rose-Innes’ deft touch it makes for compulsive, surprisingly beautiful reading. Right up to the last pages, you cannot be sure quite where the fleeting – often surreal – imagery is going to take you.

The plot burns slowly, with insects acting as the gravitational force, pulling first Katya, then her nephew, sister, and estranged father into their gravitational orbit. This cast of characters might make it sound like a book about a family, which to some degree it is (Katya’s fraught relationship with her father, and her inability to come to terms with the scars all over her body play a central role) but it is also a comment on society, a surprisingly tectonic one considering the book’s size. Everyone, from the wealthy property developer who built the eponymous Nineveh, to the people who live in shanty-towns around it, are quietly characterised by their reaction to the natural world, epitomised throughout the book by those creepy, compelling insects.

Because of this understated, almost moralistic, judgement, the novel possesses a haunting tension that leaves the reader both unsettled and gripped. You never know quite where any of the characters will stop. Violent outbursts never feel far from the surface, even though they are rare, tempted into the undercurrent of the readers’ imagination by oblique references to Katya’s own troubled childhood. What’s more, Rose-Innes uses the reader’s pre-existing understanding of human reactions to insects, and toys with them: there is no point when you can say for certain whether a character is the type to let an insect free, or crush it under their proverbial foot. Even at the end, the door is open to ongoing acts of violence and kindness.

What’s not so good about it?

There are a lot of elements about this book that shouldn’t work but really do – the caterpillars are captivating; the ‘guggas‘ enthralling – but if there is one thing that might get in some people’s way it’s Nineveh‘s speed. The book is blessed by its simplicity and slowness. It brims with Rose-Innes’ trademark taut sentences and understated metaphors, but if you’re looking for a thriller, then this literary ponder-piece may not be one for you.

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