Book Review: New in Print

Ingrid Winterbach

New in Print

The Book of Happenstance

by Ingrid Winterbach
Open Letter, 254 pp., $14.95 (paper)

"Obsessed: behep, from the Dutch behept, derived from the Middle Dutch behachten, or beheept (of which the origin is uncertain), in the sense of being stuck with, or troubled by."

Helena Verbloem – the narrator of Ingrid Winterbach's latest novel, translated from the original Afrikaans for the University of Rochester's Open Letter press – is nothing if not a woman obsessed. She preoccupies herself with her assortment of shells, with her work (helping her boss collect and catalog obsolete Afrikaans words), with death, and with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. When thieves break into her apartment and steal some of her shells, she applies her collecting habits to the case, accumulating contacts and clues all while making connections to figures from her past and referencing every author from DeLillo, Kafka, and Dante to Shakespeare. We see glimpses into her past alongside projections of the Earth's beginnings and future, and it's this weaving of the macrocosmic into the microcosmic that universalizes the themes of love and loss in a beautiful, poetic way.

Perhaps Winterbach's most graceful touch is the way strings of dead words inform a powerful lifeline through the narrative. The variants of "death," the iterations with "heart": They all correspond neatly with the rest of the plot's goings-on at the time of their presentation. Certainly some detail-oriented passages drag – there's no way to itemize 15 drawers of shells in any way that's not tedious – but the pure profusion of information yields its own rewards. Though the search may lead to dead ends or incomplete results, readers would benefit greatly from taking a page from Helena's investigative book and digging into the English translations of those Afrikaans words that aren't translated (the narrator's last name, it turns out, means "to hide or conceal," for example) or the literary allusions and musical selections throughout. Surely there's a reason Dolly Haze and Anna Livia are chosen by two characters as false names?

"I am still hoping, I am always hoping to find something," Helena thinks to herself at one point in her search. It's that hunger, that contagious obsession, that makes The Book of Happenstance such a charming and captivating read.

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The Book of Happenstance, Ingrid Winterbach

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