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The Sea of Wise Insects
By Terry Westby-Nunn
Some would say that Alice Wolfe has been plagued with unusually bad luck throughout her life. After all, she has countless scars thanks to all manner of mishaps. She’s fallen out of trees, tripped over dogs, landed on picket fences, and even lost a finger.
Think of every truly Eina! experience you’ve had, and multiply it by 10, and you have an idea of what this woman has gone through. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Alice believes she’s cursed.
But things are about to get a whole lot worse for her. The Sea of Wise Insects opens with a terrible accident, only this time it’s not Alice who is hurt.
Instead it is her brother Andrew’s girlfriend, Veronica, and she dies as a result of Andrew’s negligent driving. Alice takes the rap for her brother, which could lead to a prison sentence. At any rate, she’s in trouble with the law, and her predicament has undoubtedly complicated her life.
A Sea of Wise Insects is a multi-layered novel that explores the past as Alice remembers it, but also a past loosely based on reality, in the form of a novel written by Alice’s former boyfriend. In essence, it’s a novel about perception, and how a person’s apprehension of that which has shaped them, may contrast with the opinions held by others.
Hinting at an almost William Burroughs-esque cut-up technique, the narrative leaps from past to present to fictional account in a series of episodes, and presents readers with a slideshow of snapshots that are held together by recurring themes.
Running through everything is the theme of insects, which suggests observation of Alice’s life from a distance, reduced to clinical analysis.
Alice is paralysed, held hostage by events over which she had no control, and through her own inaction, she damns herself for most of the story.
But it’s through the gradual unravelling of her past, even though it is fictional and recounted by an unreliable narrator, that Alice is able to gain acceptance, not only of herself, but of those close to her.
It is a beautifully crafted novel, exquisite in detail. It is dark and dreamy, and definitely one of those stories I’ll be dipping into again. Westby-Nunn is a masterful storyteller and a keen observer of the beautiful flaws she portrays in her characters, and I look forward to seeing future titles from her.
This is a worthy addition to a collection of great contemporary South African fiction. – Nerine Dorman