One of the many positive consequences of my recently-acquired freelance role with Aurora Metro is that, in order to familiarise myself with their titles, I have been nudged out of my reading comfort zone. I have tended to shy away from books which revolve around significant contemporary issues. Although it pleases me to believe that this is because I am mining some more subtle and esoteric seam of literature, which yields ideas and resonances that rise above temporary, topical reference points, I suspect it's more to do with my reality allergy.
It was with surprised pleasure, then, that I read the young adult novel Themba, which deals with the rise to football stardom of a young black boy - the titular character - from an impoverished, rural background in post-apartheid South Africa. The author skilfully uses this setting to discuss the plight of these communities and the more general and pressing issue of AIDS in South Africa. The characters and environments are well-drawn and engaging, and the author - Lutz van Dijk - succeeds admirably in offering what seems like a faithful rendition of some very challenging circumstances without his book ever becoming gratuitously grim. Neither, equally, does the story, including the characters' struggles against some formidable physical and emotional obstacles, ever stray into the region of sentimentality. The book handles its light and shade with a deft sense of balance, meaning that a healthy compound of pathos and humour makes reading Themba a very rich and fulfilling experience. My favourite lighter moment occurs during an inter-club tournament, the participants in which are all from similar backgrounds to Themba's team. When one team is found to contain three players who have somehow managed to acquire football boots, the referee instructs that this footwear be removed, so as to prevent an unfair advantage accruing to that team. It's a far cry from Premiership football, 'Arry.
Themba is also fittingly educative and informative, and in fact, towards the book's climax, veers somewhat off the narrative rails into didacticism, but without seriously impairing the book's overall positive impact. Coupling together the glamour and excitement of a rags to riches football story with a description of a family's struggle against poverty, prejudice and domestic abuse is a clever and successful strategy to produce an important, worthy but highly readable novel.
Having also recently read an (old adult) novel which examined the issues surrounding Islam and feminism in Afghanistan (the excellent Freshta), I'm beginning to think that, in order to reward and entice reluctant readers of Books About Important Stuff, such as myself, said books ought to include a sticker (perhaps in the shape of the country or region in which the Important Stuff is active) which could then be applied to a specially-produced world map. When complete, the map could be sent away and returned with an achievement badge which could be sewn onto the reader's sleeve, bearing the legend 'Issue-gatherer' or similar.
I offer this innovation to publishers free of charge.