Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ingrid Winterbach’s Book of Happenstance

Ingrid Winterbach’s Die Boek van toeval en toeverlaat, known in Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach’s English translation as The Book of Happenstance, is a satisfyingly busy novel about one Helena Verbloem, a lexicographer working with one Theo Verwey on a list of archaic Afrikaans words. Helena is less bereft about the decline of words, though, than the theft of her shell collection. She even takes it upon herself to search for the perpetrator with a friend. The novel is structurally complex: though Theo is dead on page one, Winterbach tells most of her story in flashback, showing us Theo and Helena as they discuss d words about devils and h words about hearts, and taking us with Helena and her new friend Sof on trips to try to find the shell thief.

Winterbach connects many of her multiple plot and thematic lines with biological metaphors, drawing the reader through pathways that reminded me of a complex maze within a shell. Though The Book of Happenstance initially felt a bit overly complicated—or maybe even portentous?—Winterbach’s tremendous skill at unwinding the story won me over. So did her humor. Sof, for example, gets to say this about her husband, “He is a psychiatrist with as much insight into the human psyche as a mole. For that alone he deserves to die.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the aspects of the book I enjoyed most:

The death and the theft: We don’t learn much about Theo Verwey’s death until the end of the book, when Winterbach’s flashbacks finally catch up with the timeframe at the beginning of the novel. And then, oh my, is Theo’s wake something to behold, with a well-dressed widow and indecorously opulent tables of “edibles, expensive china, heavy silver, crystal glasses, lovely flower arrangements.” There are even descriptions of food; “spinach leaves enfolding mussels” are among the items that sound worth trying. Though we learn little about the fate of Helena’s shells (that would be beside the point), we accompany her on visits to potential perpetrators. Cue up Nabokov and Joyce: Helena passes herself off as Dolly Haze, Sof says she’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, and they claim to be from the Bible Society. I found the deception very funny.

Biological metaphors, particularly shells: My favorite aspect of The Book of Happenstance was Winterbach’s use of the shell metaphor, perhaps because it reminded me so much of a Chekhov story, “The Man in the Case,” which I hadn’t read in years. Early in the story, one character says (in Ivy Litvinov’s translation) that the man in the case “betrayed a perpetual, irrepressible urge to create a covering for himself, as it were a case, to isolate him and protect him against external influences.” There is also a mention of hermit crabs and snails. A century or so later, Helena speaks of the staying power of mollusks, saying they’ve “been around for much longer than vertebrates,” adding that they’ll survive longer than us, “but always wearing their beauty as protection.” After Helena’s shells disappear, someone from her past begins phoning her and she starts reminiscing about dead family members, but we also see her retreat into her own shell, away from her lover. She is very conscious of avoiding pain, telling someone she meets during her “investigation” that “Everything we bind ourselves to excessively will eventually cause us pain—that way lies madness, and grief.” Ouch, that soft tissue! There’s lots more nature in the book: Helena describes the shell secretion process to Sof, and Helena’s curiosity about biology leads to discussion of the history of the universe, including evolution, RNA, and (of course) fossils.

Labels for shells and words for meanings: One of the neatest passages in the book involves Helena’s inspection of a shell storage room in the Natural History Museum—which hosts Theo’s word project, go figure—and discussion of the need for labeling specimens. A conchologist shows Helena shells that lack names, dates, and locations, meaning they’re “of no value for scientific purposes.” The mollusks, Helena mentions, need to be found alive to qualify for a scientific collection… a bit different from the Afrikaans words she and Theo discuss and place on the list for their glossary. I particularly enjoyed Helena’s real-life uses for some of the words they discuss and record, giving them personal, relevant meanings, if only temporarily.


A quick note on another book, Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi, a novel that sounds like a perfect companion for a trip to Florida last weekend and the recent OMG-it’s-even-hotter-in-Maine heat wave that followed. I loved the premise of the book: a teenage boy named Bernie investigates the freezer in his basement looking for meat to reenact Portnoy’s Complaint but instead finds a rabbi frozen in a block of ice. The rabbi later comes to life during a power outage then establishes himself as (let’s just say) a spiritual advisor in contemporary Tennessee. In parallel, we learn how the rabbi got to America after being frozen in 1889 in Eastern Europe. There’s some funny material in The Frozen Rabbi but it’s an unbalanced book, lacking enough character development to make me warm to long (long!) passages of encyclopedic family history and Bernie’s not-so-interesting relationship with his girlfriend. On the positive side, my passive knowledge of Yiddish is improving.

Disclosures: Standard disclosures. I received review copies of both books: The Book of Happenstance came from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy speaking about literature in translation, and The Frozen Rabbi came from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Thank you to both!

Up next: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Sometimes, I just need to read a Graham Greene book.

Image credit: Chris 73, via Wikipedia/Wikipedia Commons.


  1. This is a real deconstruction of the book. thanks Lisa

  2. Love your review Lisa! It seems you liked it more than me...I guess I just have a short attention span, especially through the scientific stuff!

    Nice catch on the Nabokov and Joyce!

  3. Thanks to both of you for the kind comments, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Nana, I wish I could have deconstructed more -- there's so much in the book!

    Amy, yes, I think I did like it more than you, though I'll admit I didn't always enjoy it as I read. This is one of those books that I appreciate more after the reading than during the reading. Like you, I thought the evolution of the universe conversations got a bit long... but I also thought Winterbach linked her themes together nicely.