Book review: Sister-Sister (Kwela Books) by Rachel Zadok

A genre-defying blend of myth, culture, magic and suspense, this page-turner will remain in your thoughts long after you put it down.

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After admiring the cover’s gorgeous artwork (I do love a good book cover!), I read novelist and poet Christopher Hope’s quote on the front: “An extraordinary blend of parable, passion and poetry; it’s not often a novel of such originality comes around.” I rarely enjoy hyped up movies or books, as my expectations are usually let down, so that word “extraordinary” jumped out at me. It’s not a word I take lightly. But from the first page of Sister-Sister, Zadok’s unique expression and agile, poetic prose drew me in.

There’s a hypnotic rhythm that ticks through the novel like a languid metronome, setting a dreamy tone from the first page:

“The same wind that steals warmth from flesh and leaves from trees jives the yellow bag down the road. At the corner, it catches a sideways gust and jellyfishes into the air. I watch it float towards heaven, thinking maybe the soul of a plastic bag is a helium balloon, and I pray it makes it all the way up; but before it can reach the second floor of Capital Bank, the wind drops it back down to ride the pavement to and fro, to and fro, pacing-pacing like a strung-out whore.

Traffic lights perform acrobatics for the empty streets. Flick green, flip orange, flick-flack red. And behind me the highway, circling the city like a concrete snake, waits for us.”

RachelZadok-7 copyZadok’s words are so masterfully crafted, I had to stop regularly and read them out loud: ‘Pain makes red flowers when I try to move, throbbing roses that blister and burst behind my lids, turning pink and pretty for a moment before blowing out to a bright, aching white.’ Try not to read that twice!

Sister-Sister is a word-lover’s wet dream, not because you’ll need your dictionary at hand, but because the language transports you to a dreamlike place. Zadok’s words are so masterfully crafted, I had to stop regularly and read them out loud: “Pain makes red flowers when I try to move, throbbing roses that blister and burst behind my lids, turning pink and pretty for a moment before blowing out to a bright, aching white.” Try not to read that twice! I did, however, occasionally lose track of the story because I was so immersed in the beauty.

Set in a near-future South Africa (a place that is familiar yet alien), the story is a dark, surreal tale of twins Thuli and Sindi, who are two halves of one whole (“One-for-me-and-one-for-you” is a childhood singsong refrain that occurs throughout, reminding the reader that they are only whole together). When they are the best of friends, they appear to form one whole person, but torn apart by jealousy and misunderstanding, they are dysfunctional and lost.

The twins live in poverty with their mother and next-door aunty – who smells “of cigarette smoke and Vaseline Intensive Care in the yellow bottle. Sweet and bitter, like granules of tinned coffee” – as a surrogate mother when their own is absent. Theirs is a life of hardship and rare indulgences; their only pleasures stolen treats from the local spaza shop: “…we lifted a Cornetto from Joe Saviour’s fridge and lay on the grassed embankment above the highway, counting cars with stolen sugar on our tongues”. But Thuli and Sindi’s world begins to fall apart when an unknown uncle brings news from a home and extended family they never knew they had. It’s the trigger for a slow and insidious familial unravelling.

An unpunished crime, envy, misperceptions and black magic pollute the twins’ relationship, leading them on an epic journey of redemption. The genre-defying Sister-Sister is a potent blend of myth, culture, magic and suspense, with a dark twist you may feel coming. I highly recommended it.

Go to page 166 of the December 2013 issue of DESTINY to find out how you can stand in line to win one of five copies of Sister Sister.