The opening lines of The Reactive, the debut novel by the young South African writer Masande Ntshanga, are startling:
“Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my little brother’s life. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I told Luthando where to find them.”
This fresh, matter of fact confessional tone marks the story that follows. Nathi (short for Lindanathi) was supposed to follow his half-brother to the Eastern Cape where they would both partake in rites of initiation, but he decides to stay behind. When Luthando dies due to complications, Nathi feels responsible. The memory of his brother, guilt and family obligation are themes that weigh heavily on the young protagonist as his tale unfolds.
After his brother’s death, Nathi decides that he had best make something of himself. He enrols in university to study journalism but drops out and goes to technical college instead. He tells us that it “didn’t take much to go to school for free, in those days, or rather to trade on the pigment we were given to carry.” His tech degree lands him a job in a lab testing blood samples for HIV. In the process of testing for samples that are positive – reactive – he himself contracts the disease. He envisions himself as half-dead already. Set in 2003, with South Africa on the cusp of making anti-retroviral drugs freely available to all HIV+ individuals, Nathi sells his ARVs to others. Otherwise he drifts from job to job while spending much of his time sniffing industrial glue with Ruan and Cecilia, friends he meets at a counseling group.
In the background to all of this is a promise he made to his brother’s stepfather, his uncle Bhut’ Vuyo, a former mechanic fallen victim to alcohol and now living in Du Noon, a bleak settlement on the edge of Cape Town. Nathi had received refuge in Du Noon after disgracing his mother by dropping out of university. A text message reminding him of his commitment to his brother’s family some eight years after the fact, sets the story in motion. Nathi is drifting, he is taking risks. An encounter a with a curious masked stranger who engages the three young drug dealers in an illicit business deal may just be the motivation he needs.
In The Reactive Ntshanga paints an image of the new South Africa that is fresh and alarming. Nathi and his friends are all educated. They have or have had good jobs, apartments in Sea Point, but they are slowly losing motivation, sliding from one day to the next, grabbing taxis to parties with eccentric artists, going nowhere fast. In the end Nathi will have to decide for himself where his own loyalties lie.
This is a disturbing story, but one that is told with language that shimmers and an intensity that simmers just below the surface. Nathi’s voice is captivating, he and his world come alive. Cape Town provides an essential backdrop, as does the settlement where Bhut’ Vuyo lives in a shipping container. There are also important references to the Eastern Cape and King William’s Town, which it turns out, is the author’s home town.
Now none of this would be critical for the enjoyment of this book but, as a Canadian on his first visit to South Africa it is oddly serendipitous that I read this book on the bus, the same line that features briefly in the text in fact, on my way back to Cape Town from East London. I would likely have passed through King William’s Town with little notice in fact had I not traveled out to the Eastern Cape with a retired Xhosa man returning home to the town for a family funeral. We talked a lot through that 16 hour journey, about our countries, about life, about politics. For me, my experience of reading The Reactive will be bound to my trip and I look forward to watching Ntshanga’s career develop. He is already receiving a lot of well-deserved attention at home and abroad.
The Reactive is published by Umuzi and is available as an e-book, at least in Canada, likely elsewhere. A paper edition will be published in the US by Two Dollar Radio in 2016.
7 thoughts on “Desperate for a reaction: The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga”
The picture painted of South Africa is rather grim isn’t it – HIV, drugs, glue sniffing. Still, the book does sound astonishing. I’ve not read any contemporary S African authors so have aded to my list for the future. I’m even more astonished at your 16 hour bus journey.. did you stop overnight or just go straight through?
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The Reactive does paint a grim picture, but is, ultimately, an uplifting book. It is a deceptively multilayered story.
The bus ride was actually 17 hours to East London, my seat mate got off an hour earlier. It is overnight and there are frequent stops and, if you are lucky you sleep some. You do see the country and travel with average Africans. On both trips I had encounters I would not have had otherwise. And it is cheaper than flying or driving by a long shot. I am back in Cape Town now and today I visited the T Bag shop on the waterfront (thanks for the tip). I think I have all my souvenirs now. I just need another bag to carry all the books I’ve bought home!
I just discovered your blog. Found it through wordpress and other blogs in the wp community, mainly those dealing with bipolar illness and writing, which are the themes of my (newish) blog. I really like your site-it is beautiful and has great content, carefully written. Read your post from December of last year to get a sense of your story, and it reminded me of mine–I too had to stop working after my diagnosis in my forties, and I too have found reading and writing to be an amazing source of peace and productivity.
Regarding this book you discuss here, I’ll check it out. It reminds me a bit of Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. Peace–pk
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Thanks for the comment. I started out blogging more about mental health because my blog debut coincided with a break down. I am now more seriously focused on books, especially in translation and South African lit. This novel here is by an exciting young South African writer. It is a book that seems simple when you read it but has many layers.
I will be sure to check out your blog.
I had not read this review of yours because I wanted to read the book myself first but then I realised that I may not get to it this year. I love the serendipity between your visit and reading the book. Good review; encouraging me to read the book. I am often put off by books that have a lot of drug use; just a personal distaste that I am prepared to over-ride if the book is worth it – as it was with Thirteen Cents
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Thanks Penny. I am always very careful not to give too much away in the reviews I write and, like you, I often put off reading or skim reviews of books I know I want to read.
This is a remarkable book, the style is direct and deceptively simple. Layers and complexities are revealed in time. I read an interview with the author where he cited Camus as one of the influences on this work and I can see that. And for all the drug use and recklessness that occurs it is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
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