New writers these days seem to have to do a lot of their own publicity. So it isn’t surprising that along with everyone else who writes a book blog, I get requests to write reviews of books that might not catch the eye of mainstream reviewers. And though they may not be books I would normally gravitate to, it seems only reasonable to read and write about them if that is going to give their authors a bit of publicity.
In this case, the book falls into a category I haven’t written about before: chick lit. I do not mean anything disparaging by this label. Being mostly about women, chick lit suffers the same disparagement as does romance fiction. And while the Mills and Boon style of romance may be rubbish, some of the greatest works of English literature are romances. OK, I don’t think it’s likely that the chick lit genre will produce something of the quality of Pride and Prejudice, but neither do I think it should be automatically dismissed.
Chick lit addresses issues faced by modern women, especially those around identity, and relationships with friends and family. The search for a partner is important, but does not dominate the agenda as it does in romance fiction. Coffee at Little Angels deals with a group of eight friends, and while half of them are male, I think this is essentially a book about women, for women.
Maxine, Sarah, Kaitlyn, Melanie, Josh, Phillip, Grant and Caleb identified themselves as a group at their high school in a small town in South Africa. They were not all equally friendly: ‘You don’t get to choose your friends when you live in a small town. There are simply people in your general age group who you make do with because you don’t have a choice’. Partner swopping and jealousies didn’t help either. After school, several of them moved away, and effectively lost contact. But when some ten years later Phillip is killed in a hit and run accident, they get together again for his funeral.
The book is about the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the relationships between them, both in the past, and now that they see each other again. None of them is really happy or satisfied with their life. The action takes place over three days and is mostly located in the nameless small town, where the only place you can get decent coffee is at the Little Angels coffee shop. This is not a book where plot is of over-riding importance, though there is a bit of a twist at the end. Indeed the narrative is constantly broken up by Larter’s device of telling the story in short bursts in the first person from the perspective of all eight participants, including Phillip – both before and after he dies. When each character is speaking, their circumstances are what distinguish them from each other. Their language, both in thought and conversation, is hip and modern; no doubt Ms Larter writes as she speaks. But none of the characters has a distinctive voice.
The town may be dilapidated, the hotel cold and its furnishings threadbare, but these white South Africans nevertheless exist in a modern western world with a gen Y sensibility. The fact that one is married to a black woman and another is gay does not really challenge this. I think Larter is most powerful when she looks outside this bubble and includes the black population of the ‘township’ which lies outside it. Phillip has been doing charity work there, though its hopelessness depresses him. His friends find evidence of his work, and acknowledge the impact of AIDS on ‘a dying nation’. ‘It’s easy to have a superficial knowledge of these kinds of things. It’s easy to agree or act appalled when people say stupid things like HIV is God’s way of cleansing the planet. But to know it for what it is? To really know it. We don’t.’ This awareness changes the lives of at least some of the group. They also reject the stuffy impersonality of the funeral service in the local Dutch Reform Church, and join the black Africans singing and dancing outside. ‘It is perhaps only in this country that so many people mourn death by celebration,’ one of the characters notes. This may be standard fare in South African novels, but it is moving to an outsider.
Nadine Rose Later is twenty-nine, and lives in South Africa. This is her first book. You can find out more about her from her blog.