The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg

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The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: A story of coming of age, friendship and secrets in 1950s South Africa
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Virago
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1844084890

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Best friends Tommy and Chris are 12 years old. It is 1958 and they are growing up in a small mining town near Johannesburg, South Africa. They are learning to box and to dance to rock and roll music.

The story is told by two alternating narrators, Chris and Tommy's younger sister, Cece. Tommy struggles to protect Cece from the attentions of their father, a violent, abusive alcoholic, taking her out with him and Chris. This said, the language used is not the language of children, and I think we're meant to understand that the story is being told some years after it all happened. There is a lot of dialogue, and the characters use a lot of colloquial South African words, many drawn from Afrikaans and Zulu as well as English, and the glossary runs to a whole seven pages. I didn't use this, though, as I prefer to immerse myself in the language of a time and place when reading fiction, and I don't think I found it particularly hard to understand.

I was a bit concerned when this book arrived by the subject matter. I have absolutely no interest in boxing and I am surprised to have found a novel in which this sport is so important to the main characters so enjoyable. The portrayal of friendship and of two young siblings trying hard to look out for each other is very compelling. While the story told is quite sad and disturbing, there is a lot of humour in the telling.

I did quite like the dancing scenes – where most boys show off their skills jiving to Elvis Presley, Tommy and Chris prefer dancing to Little Richard. They are more shocked when they learn about his skin colour than they are by his suggestiveness, but perhaps some of this goes over their heads.

The kids in this story are not particularly political, and in any case they are rather young to understand the complexities of the changes taking place around them. During the 1950s the Nationalist government that had come to power in 1948 introduced and enforced the notorious Apartheid legislation shoring up strict racial segregation. Interestingly, while the boys are boxing and playing rock and roll, Cece is following her mother's example and taking refuge in religion. She regularly goes to a lively black church, the Jerusalem Apostolic Church of Zion, and names a black person as one of the people she likes best alongside Tommy and Chris. She knows that if her dad finds out he will disapprove and that going to church must stay secret, and she hasn't yet taken on the racist attitudes of white adults and older kids.

Like Lauren Liebenberg's acclaimed first novel, The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club is a coming of age novel. In most other ways though, it is very different. Her first novel about two young sisters in Ian Smith's Rhodesia during the civil war which eventually brought Robert Mugabe to power could have been taken as partly autobiographical – this story set some years before the author was born clearly cannot be, and I actually liked it much better than the first. I can't judge the accuracy, but I found the feel and atmosphere very convincing.

Thank you to Virago for sending a copy of this book to the Bookbag.

You can read the Bookbag review of The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam here. Another novel set in South Africa is J M Coetzee's Disgrace. Another recent novel set in 1950s Africa is Leila Aboulela's Lyrics Alley, set in Sudan and Egypt.

Buy The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg at Amazon.com.


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