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“The Next South African Classic”: The Magistrate of Gower by Claire Robertson Launched with Ann Donald

Claire Robertson

Kalk Bay Books was crammed full for the recent launch of The Magistrate of Gower by Claire Robertson, the new South African literary sensation.

Audrey Rademeyer welcomed all of the guests, and said that Roberton’s debut The Spiral House, which won the 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Award, was one of the shop’s favourite and best-selling books. “I’ve heard that The Magistrate of Gower is even better,” she said, “though it’s hard to imagine that is a possibility.”

“I am not prone to exaggeration,” said Ann Donald, who joined the author in a fascinating conversation that night, “but this book really is better than The Spiral House.” Donald described the fluttery feeling in her belly as she progressed through the book, sensing that she was reading something “truly, truly special”. In fact, she believes it is the next South African classic.

Claire Robertson and Ann DonaldThe Magistrate of GowerDonald spoke about the opening sentence, which she said would give Jane Austen a run for her money. Robertson read it aloud: “In the end, you could choose to say no more than this: that in the high summer of 1938, in a courtroom in the town of Gower in the Union of South Africa, a case of arson came to an abrupt and irregular end, confounding those who had followed the matter and prompting speculation that approached, but did not quite deliver, scandal.”

Donald said she would risk appearing superficial by starting with a comment on the cover. “If ever there’s a cause to judge a book by its cover, the work of Joey Hi-Fi permits a certain expectation,” she said. Robertson reflected on the image of the man seen half-shaded by bluegum trees, who is both looming over and embodying a town. “It’s about a man and his time and place. It promises that there’s a Boer War and South African history is going on … but it subverts that,” she said. Dale Halvorsen, aka Joey Hi-Fi, had powerfully incorporated her vision of the man alone. Robertson praised the generosity of his spirit and artistry in realising her words.

The conversation between Donald and Robertson was a rare, precious and inspiring one. It left the audience profoundly uplifted, even though the book explores some unlovely aspects of the country’s dark history. Merely listening to Robertson discuss her love of the Afrikaans language and the conflict she experienced regarding the moral tenor that was imposed on her youth by the Afrikaner state enabled one to think in an expanded way about the inherent insoluble tensions which South Africans are still trying to comprehend.

As Robertson spoke about the process of realising her characters and their own personal discoveries, one sensed one’s own spirit being freed to reconnect to the past, both the private and the political, the hidden and the revealed. Donald’s sensitive observations about The Magistrate of Gower, her unbridled enthusiasm for the author’s deft and poetic handling of the past, and her passion and intensity for this narrative that layers secrets and shame, made for an riveting evening.

Already the positive reviews for this remarkable story are coming in. Michele Magwood’s praise song is one of the first of what will probably be a flood of attention.

Those who were lucky enough to attend the launch had their books signed by the author.

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


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