cover image The Book of Happenstance

The Book of Happenstance

Ingrid Winterbach, trans. from the Afrikaans by Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach. Open Letter, $14.95 trade paper (254p) ISBN 978-1-934824-33-7

Winterbach (The Elusive Moth) executes an intelligent literary mystery in this account of Helena Verbloem, a Cape Town lexicographer who has been hired to assist expert Theo Verwey in compiling a dictionary of old Afrikaans. Helena has "not led an admirable life," and the divorced mother of a grown daughter values above all else her collection of conch shells, which were stolen from her flat some months before. Winterbach plays with chronology, moving between the sudden death of Verwey in his office one evening, to the theft of the narrator's shells and the subsequent police investigation. As the stories play out, strange incidents occur: Constable Modisane has found some of the shells, but the alleged thief has hanged himself, and Modisane is soon transferred to another province; a man Helena met briefly 27 years before begins making menacing phone calls; her co-workers behave strangely; and her relationship with Verwey intensifies. Has the narrator elicited her own bad luck, or is this "the fickle hand of Mrs Fortuna"? Winterbach's characters are rich, her story foreboding and tense, and her prose remarkably lean. (June)