Review: What Kind of Child, Ken Barris

what-kind-of-child Ken Barris is a South African author to watch. His catalogue of literary awards attests to this: the M-Net Book Prize, the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the Sydney Clouts Award, the Vita Award, a short-listing for the Caine Prize for Writing in Africa. But listing his achievements to drum up support for What Kind of Child is entirely unnecessary. From the outset of Barris’s fourth book, one is drawn in by the plain language, the effortless vivid descriptions. The novel breaks away from stereotypical conventions that permeate much of our literature today. Yes, this novel does touch on race, crime and class, like most South African stories, but its evocation of an unattractive society consumed by alienation extends well beyond the benchmark.

The narrative loosely follows three main protagonists: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a dying tattoo artist who believes he was once a Spanish Conquistador; Luke Turner, a self-loathing libertine with an unusual appetite for women, cooking and death; and Malibongwe Joyini, a joyless child doomed to a hopeless life as a street urchin. Through their eyes we experience an unembellished Cape Town, fraught with perpetual exhaust fumes, forgotten historical sites, and drifters. Barris’s characters come into contact with each other without ever making contact; the protagonists’ relations are rendered meaningless by their inability to fully express themselves and their histories.
The novel evokes questions about the futility of living, its essential mundanity: life and death are unremarkable in the city. Even miraculous occurrences like the appearance of pterosaurs over Table Mountain are dulled by the all-pervasive anomie.

The tale is disquieting as it is bleak, more so because there seems to be nothing of value in the future for our protagonists. It seems that the author is asking this question about South African society, even its literature: are we so shackled by our personal and social history that the future is utterly stifled? The title of the novel embodies this question in the form of a question of its own: What Kind of Child… Its implied ellipsis allows the author to explore the nature of a familiar theme, namely Destiny.

One might ask why buy a book that paints such a dismal picture of Cape Town and its inhabitants, that seemingly conveys nothing but despair. The subject matter may be dark and gloomy, but the beauty of the author’s language provides a perfect counterbalance. Barris’s writing is economic and precise; it allows the reader to read both what is stated and not stated, which creates an incredibly rich narrative. His descriptions, from tastes and smells in the kitchen, to the rasping caresses of lovers, and the minutiae of people’s faces and bodies, are remarkably sensuous – a trait which is not often evident in male writers. His words make the reader’s journey through this disquieting underworld an enjoyable experience.

ken-barris Ken Barris’s writing turns the lives of unremarkable people into a remarkable book; it moulds the ordinary into something extraordinary, and impresses upon the audience a range of emotions that linger long after the last line has been read.

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