Before the gorgeous summer of 2015 passes into autumn, I’d like to review three unusual books that brought me special pleasure this season. Two novels and one novella — each in its own way quite unique and deserving of attention — one a day for three days.
It’s always a treat to read a fine first novel, and Danila Botha’s Too Much on the Inside is no exception. At first glance, its premise is common enough: three young immigrants to Canada (and one Nova Scotian) try to get a foothold in Toronto, reaching out, connecting, building lives for themselves. Originally from South Africa (and a number of other places), Botha is no stranger to newcomers’ dilemmas. Her characters often made me think of those Contents Under Pressure labels on spray cans — people about to burst open from the force of their untold, richly layered stories. Botha has the gift of equally rich language to bring them to life, and her wonderful descriptions of downtown Toronto’s colourful vibe make for vivid three-dimensional reading.
In brief, there’s Marlize, a South African who aspired to be a dancer, then fled home, a victim of rape. She’s a student who works at a bar owned by Dez, a passionate Brazilian who lives a life infused with the paradox of sexual adventure and a longing for goodness; the two become a pair. Nicki, an Israeli army vet from an unhappy family, and Lucas, a man from the Maritimes who did time for assault likewise make a tumultous couple. Each of the four has a distinct and lively voice; Botha’s decision to rotate the story through four points of view adds momentum and a gritty texture to events as they unfold.
The only thing that didn’t work for this reader was the consistent use of apostrophes to emphasize the dropped endings in Lucas’ Maritime speech. Since the accented voices of the other three characters were left for us to imagine, it seemed unnecessary and distracting to single him out in this way.
Nevertheless, the ins and outs (and ultimate destiny) of these characters are complex, and make for compelling reading. The novel’s energizing conflicts rest not only in the characters but also in the reader’s psyche. If you’re an older resident of Toronto (or any globalized city), you’ll be struck by the sparks that fly when your more sedate notion of urban life is zapped by the author’s raw, sensate version of Toronto as it is now. In Too Much on the Inside, Danila Botha explores the universal themes of loneliness, belonging and home. The reader’s in good hands with a writer who never stoops to sentimentality; whose characters, however troubled, struggle for goodness and connection.
Too Much on the Inside by Danila Botha is published by Quattro Books (2015).
Tomorrow: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud