Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Mark Daniel Taylor
Reviewed by Mark Daniel Taylor
Summary: A beautiful and precisely written book. Nineveh not only feels relevant but is an insightful exploration of character and place.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 238 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Aardvark Bureau
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1910709160

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Henrietta Rose-Innes's Nineveh instantly reassures you that you are in the presence of a confident and talented writer. The story of Katya Grubbs, a second-generation pest exterminator who specialises in relocating the bugs and rodents that ruin middle-class garden parties, Rose-Inne writes with the enviable ability of describing both the intricacies of Katya's job and the feeling of it simultaneously.

Take her opening description of a tree that is covered in squirming caterpillars: 'It's possible to imagine that the whole tree has been eaten away, replaced by a crude facsimile made of caterpillar flesh.' She writes in a style that mirrors the inner-contradiction of Katya; a combination of a light touch underpinned by the grotesque, one summarised by her combination of the absurd image of the caterpillar swam swallowing a tree and her use of the off-putting phrase 'flesh'.

Set in modern-day Cape Town, Katya and her nephew Toby run PPR or Painless Pest Relocation. The two operate out of a run-down garage surrounded by the twin characteristics of the region: gentrification in the shape of construction sites and bull dowsed greenery and a poverty-stricken community of the homeless. Or as Katya describes them, 'the unloved. The unlovely.' Katya at first seems content with her merciful life of insect relocation, but she still incubates a more cynical side of herself, one who is not against leaving a few caterpillars behind after finishing a job so that she can return for repeat business later. This side is seemingly under control until she is offered a job surveying the newly constructed residential paradise: Nineveh.

Nineveh is plagued by a type of beetle known only as 'goggas' but upon her arrival, Katya only has the word of two security guards, Pascal and Reuben, as proof of the bug's existence. We learn also that Katya's father, Len Grubbs, was asked by Mr Brand, the man who runs Nineveh, previous to Katya's arrival, to rid the residential site of the bug but had failed to do so (or, like Katya, attempted to get away with leaving just enough behind to be called back later). It is Katya's relationship with her father that acts as the heart of the novel. More than happy to kill pests, he brought up Katya and her sister Alma by travelling around South Africa and sleeping in spare and abandoned bedrooms. Len was cruel and violent towards the two sisters but when they started rubbing up against one another like 'the branches of a cramped tree' they both fled from him to start new lives. But like the goggas which seem to be both there and not, Len is a spectre for Katya, leaving signs of himself everywhere she goes and making himself heard in every sound she hears at night.

It is obvious that Katya is suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress. Her unresolved relationship with her father has left behind an anger, one that erupts unexpectedly or for little reason. This anger, again like the goggas, is there without her knowledge, as in one scene when she '…doesn't feel herself grabbing the picture, but it's in her hand and she's hurling it overarm…' Her insistence on harmless relocation is both a rebellion against her father and a cover for the rage that festers beneath her, one that risks turning her into a replication of Len. Rose-Innes is almost flippant in her description of the scars that litter Katya's body and the feeling of her father laying just below the surface of her life, ready to overtake it like a swarm of ravenous beetles, is made near literal as the story reaches its climax. But the novel has so much more to offer than mere metaphor. The relationship between Katya and her family, including Toby and Alma, and the split personality that the South African terrain of Cape Town is stuck between gives the novel a sense of character and relevance that is rare to find.

If there is a downside to the book it may be that it is too finely constructed at times. The finale ties up all the loose ends in a way that feels almost mechanical. And although the novel ends on what could be seen as an ambiguous ending for Katya, I felt there was still more for the reader to explore. But if wanting more is a novel's biggest crime, it hasn't got much to worry about.

We also have a review of Rose-Innes' Green Lion. If you enjoy Nineveh and still haven't read it, Disgrace by J M Coetzee is a must.

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