Book review: The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg

editorial image

Occasionally a novel comes along that packs an extra punch or, in this case, an oblique left hook.

No surprise when it springs from the pen of classy Rhodesian-born author Lauren Liebenberg whose acclaimed debut, The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers.

Understanding all the yearning, the angst, the excitement, the bravado and the bewilderment of youth is what Liebenberg does best and here she takes us to that pivotal moment when innocence is lost and the complexion of life is changed forever.

This unusual rite of passage story is all the more powerful as it takes place in the bleak, dusty and depressing rawness of a gold mining town in 1950s South Africa where impoverished whites grind out a living amidst the detritus of political decay.

Two 12-year-old boys, on the cusp of manhood, are part of a new generation eager to escape the outdated prejudices and downtrodden life of their hard-pressed English-speaking white parents, a bunch of ‘lukewarm patriots’ who are ‘hovering on the fringes of the great clash of nationalities unfolding in this land’.

Tommy Michaels, a wild street fighter with a secret fear of his own fists, and his more level-headed and sensitive best pal Chris Jameson have found an outlet for their frustrations in the town’s boxing rings, and jiving to the frenetic pulse of rock ‘n’ roll music.

Under the tutelage of the enigmatic and staunchly atheist coach Jock McGinty, the boys are told that boxing is the closest they will come to godliness in their mostly wretched lives. It’s the sport of ‘brotherhood and solitude, love and madness, ugliness and beauty, strength and mercy’.

And fuelled by the sounds of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino – singers they are shocked to discover are black but ‘not like our blacks’ – the friends hope that dancing will make them better fighters.

Tommy’s only other love is his six-year-old sister Cecelia (Cece), a sweet and vulnerable child who finds comfort in the mystical attractions of religion to counteract a violent, hard-drinking father and a negligent mother.

But when Cece goes missing one hot summer’s night, Tommy’s dad comes under suspicion and it will force the two friends to make harsh choices between courage and cowardice, and loyalty and betrayal.

Liebenberg’s compelling, moving and occasionally darkly humorous story is complex on social, psychological and political levels but it is also gloriously literate, juxtaposing the highest prose with colloquialisms so authentic and unfamiliar that they require a glossary.

A memorable story from an author with both vision and talent.

(Virago, hardback, £15.99)