3.5 out of 5: Open Letter Press recently published an English translation of The Book of Happenstance by well-known South African author Ingrid Winterbach. As the novel opens, Helena Verbloem has just moved to Durban, a port city on the east coast of South Africa, to undertake a special project. Verbloem is to work with the elegant and learned Theo Verway to create a compilation of obsolete Afrikaans words. She brings along her collection of seashells, which is a kind of spiritual talisman for her:
Meditating on the shells is one way of centering myself and lowering my levels of anxiety. These shells are a source of infinite beauty and wonder to me. I can rely on their beauty to divert me from vexation and discontent.
By page five we learn that Theo is to die within seven months and that Helena’s shells have been stolen by a burglar. Herlena spends the rest of the novel in a kind of spiritual quest. Not only is she seeking her shells, but she is also trying to understand her attachment to them. She enters into extended conversations with her coworkers about the origins of life on the planet and the miracle of evolution. Throughout it all, she examines her own life, which includes a lover who inspires nothing more than “great affection.”
Not much happens in The Book of Happenstance, but there is a pervasive sense of foreboding as if the narrative is suspended in a moment of pause right before a dramatic denouement. Clearly, this is Winterbach’s intent, and she goes so far as to have a friend of Helena’s vocalize this: “That’s how I would have liked to write if I could … with little happening ostensibly, but everything charged with meaning.” That promised drama never arrives, however, and I found myself wishing for either an exciting event or a resolution to the many subplots. On the whole, The Book of Happenstance was unsatisfying, though I enjoyed many of its constituent parts.