Read Women Write 2014/15: Book 9: Rachel Zadok: Gem Squash Tokoloshe

Rachel Zadok, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, writing, women, South Africa

This year I went to Rocking the Daisies, a music festival on a wine farm in the Western Cape of South Africa. I take a book everywhere with me, and I duly took this one along, but I never believed that I’d get a chance to read it that weekend.

But, it was COOKING hot.  As in 44 degrees hot. Grumpy hot. Too hot to go in the sun. Too hot to move. Luckily my tent was in the shade and so on the Saturday from about 11am to 3pm, I just lay on the blow up mattress in the shade. It was a perfect opportunity to lie back and do the afternoon snoozing I so adore. But, then I picked up Gem Squash Tokoloshe.

It’s one of those books that I’ve always seen in the book shop, like Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy, that I always pick up and read, but somehow have never bought. I don’t know why and if Rachel Zadok or Yewande Omotoso ever read this, I’m sorry. I was wrong to leave them there. I could have been telling people about them for all this time.

Gem Squash Tokoloshe transports you. It’s not surprising that, as Wikipedia says,

Gem Squash Tokoloshe was shortlisted for the Whitbread Book Awards First Novel award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and long-listed for the IMPAC Award.

From the moment you start reading you are not in the normal world around you, you are there with Faith through every minute of her journey. Set on a farm in the then Northern Transvaal, the book is told by a young narrator, Faith. Faith’s parents aren’t getting along so well, and as things begin to unravel Faith’s character begins to shine through.

I actually really like books told from a child narrator’s perspective. I think that it allows the writer to show the reader so much more about the situation than you can with an adult. Adults know when they can say things, and what’s taboo to talk about. Children don’t, and so you are let into a whole world that you might not have been if it was an adult protagonist. The first half of the book is set during apartheid and something that would seem too obvious for an adult to describe is shown to us through the mind of a lonely girl, who wants to connect with someone so much, and finds that connection in Nomsa, the cleaning lady hired to take care of the farm.

The book carries on into Faith’s adult life, and you end up feeling so much for her that when I finished the book the thought of reading another one felt like a betrayal. It felt like I was leaving Faith there on her own, and all I wanted to do was be there for her.

I think what stood out most for me is the fine line that people who are in touch with their feelings often tread. If you are attune to the world around you, you can end up feeling so much that you’re not sure what to do with it, or thinking that you’re a bit mad. We’re taught to be so individualistic and concerned with our own problems that sometimes people with mental health or emotional issues can be excluded and silenced. I think that this book made me reflect on the ways that feeling deeply is both essential to who I am, and very risky. On the other hand, I once read a quote that went something like, ‘if you are well adapted to a sick society, then you too are sick’. So feeling too much is, I suppose, better than feeling not much at all.

Gem Squash Tokoloshe is a beautiful, powerful book. I am so glad that I bought it this time. I nearly finished the whole thing on the weekend of Rocking the Daisies – which is a pretty mean feat.

Rachel Zadok is a South African author. You can follow her on twitter here.