Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Novella Award Shortlist: In Wolf Village by Penny Simpson & Kevin Parry’s When it was Raining


In Wolf Village by Penny Simpson

Reviewed by Cath 

I’m going to confess to a little impatience with magical realism as a genre, probably because in the wrong hands it too often drops the realism and speeds resolutely past magical and into the fateful territory of whimsy. Put another way, I’m too old to be reading about talking trees.

There’s a tricky balance to strike between magical and realism. For adult readers the sweetness of fable requires the bitterness of reality. With In Wolf Village Penny Simpson strikes that balance magnificently.

Set in the fictional state of Pryzgodda, a place of brooding architecture, Slavic forests, and unstable internal politics, photographer Meret Poesy documents the progress of this new nation towards independence. Her own mother disappeared during the student protests of 1960s Paris and for Meret who only has one image of Magda, photographs form a narrative – they are her way of telling a story. She understands that her images lie because they never capture the entirety of what they claim to represent, but that they also contain unequivocal truths about the moment they were taken. Meret obtains permission to travel with the Deputy President of this fledgling state, the morally compromised Egor Kovac (think Romania’s Ceacescu with better hair and more charisma), deep into the forests of Zverna at the disputed border of the country. Here, it is rumoured, live the last of a species of red wolf, creatures of legend and mystery. Meret’s motivation for the trip is not purely professional. The ruthless Kovac, who plans to conquer the territory by destroying it, has hinted that he knows the whereabouts of Meret’s lover, Gil, a journalist who has disappeared during the conflict.

The world has seen plenty of Prygoddian conflict in recent times: nations where internal war progresses to the point of self cannibalization, with nothing left for the victor but scraps of flesh and bloody bones. In Wolf Village takes that brutal reality and leavens it with stories of wolves with russet pelts and an uncanny knack for survival; of a forest where fabulous golden apples still grow undisturbed by the convulsion of battle. This is a cry of hope for the future: that when the fighting finally settles, something will remain that is worth saving. In a world where refugees risk their lives to escape to safer places, these are the stories we need to light the gloom. We are lucky that Penny Simpson has written one.

When it was Raining by Kevin Parry

Reviewed by Eve

When it was Raining by Kevin Parry is set in post-apartheid South Africa. The main character is Lindiwe who is twelve and living with her Great-uncle Zwelinjani following the disappearance of her mother. When a white man from the family’s past comes to visit, memories are reopened, and at the same time Lindiwe’s great-uncle is summoned to a Truth and Reconciliation hearing to learn what happened to his

Oh I utterly adored this story. At first I felt the voice of Lindiwe might be a bit young for her twelve years, but as the details emerged and I fell in love with her innocence and her awakening I felt that being allowed to see this story through her eyes was completely perfect. The simple, spare descriptions of her surroundings gave such an immersive sense of place that I felt wholly part of her world.

Lindiwe has made a grave for her mother under the big idywabasi tree and it’s somewhere she can go and speak to her. Even so she’s not entirely sure her mother is dead, she doesn’t know what happened to her. The fact that Lindiwe is so young and so innocent of everything her family have been through means she comes to the unfolding discovery of the horrors of apartheid with raw childlike emotion.

At last we reached the tall boulder by the side of the path, near the top of the hill, and great-uncle said, ‘Now, mntanam, we will rest here – come, sit down – sit down here by me.  Yes, here next to me.  Stop crying now, it is all right.’

              But I could not stop.  I said, ‘But we have nothing, Malume – we have nothing to bury – ’

              He kept his arm around my shoulder.  ‘No, we have nothing to bury, you are right,’ he said.  ‘But we do have something.’

              ‘What is that?’ I said.  ‘There is nothing – what do we have?’

              ‘We have our hearts, my child.  And in our hearts we have her.  Is it not so?  Is she not in your heart?  Now?  All the time?’

              I looked at him, his deep eyes, his gentle smile.  ‘She is, Malume,’ I said, ‘ – all the time.’

              ‘And you, are you not her child?  Are you not her own flesh and blood?’

              ‘Yes, I am.’

              ‘Yes.  So she is here, she is in you.  In you.  Mntanam: we are not alone.  We are never alone.  Because we are in each other.  And it is through each other, you see, that we live.  Do you understand this?’

              ‘Malume – ’

              ‘ – through each other.  And we have her also in our love for each other.  Yes, that is so.  It is so.’ 

The theme throughout the story is forgiveness and it asks whether it is possible to overcome past hatreds. There are so many levels to each character development as they move through the process of finding out what really happened both to Lindiwe’s mother and to Great-uncle in the past. There are journeys both physical and mental  for the pair and the people they encounter along the way have very different ideas of how to move on post-Apartheid and whether this is even possible.

Parry’s writing is exceptional and his eye for detail gives such a strong picture of both character and place. I could feel the heat and the drought as they waited for rain, I could feel the bitter hatred and resentment of the man on the bus. And throughout I felt so strongly the pull of Lindiwe’s pain and confusion and loss. And the build up to the denouement was superbly paced.  The whole story was so perfectly formed throughout.

I have to add at the end here that I searched online for details of Kevin Parry to see whether he had written anything else for me to read and was astonished to discover that he is in the early stages of dementia. Despite this I was delighted to see he is working on another novella. I shall wait patiently and eagerly to get my hands on it.

One comment on “The Novella Award Shortlist: In Wolf Village by Penny Simpson & Kevin Parry’s When it was Raining

  1. Jackie
    October 2, 2015

    Eve, the quote from your novella made me teary, it does sound like a beautiful, if poignant story.
    Cath, I completely agree with you about magical realism. In this case, the zoological inaccuracy would bother me, as the red wolf has only been found in North America and the story seems based on a fictional place somewhere in Europe.And I must say I’m surprised that you found your novella a “light in the gloom” as it sounds very violent. But it seems that nature is a symbol for something unspoiled, so I like that idea.
    Good reviews from both of you!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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