Book Talk: The Folly by Ivan Vladislavic

As part of this whole book box thing I've been getting a lot of copies of excellent books sent to me by wonderful publishers for consideration. Ultimately I can only pick four books a year for the box and the standard is so high that there are lots of excellent books that aren't quite getting picked, so I thought it would be a good plan to talk about some of those books, and in many cases pass along my copy of them, here.

This is a review of sorts (or more just my thoughts) about The Folly by Ivan Vladislavic, published by the wonderful And Other Stories. The review may contain spoilers so please be aware!

The Folly is a difficult book to write about. On the face of it it's just a book about a man building a house but is' really more than that. I read it weeks ago and am still thinking about it - it's a brain tangling book.

A man named Niewenhuizen moves into a vacant lot and starts to clear the land to build a house. His neighbours watch from their window, and eventually Mr Malgas is intrigued enough to go over and say hi. Day after day he helps Niewenhuizen clear the land and make a plan for the house he says he's building, all the while without seeing any evidence of a house actually being built, until suddenly one day the house Niewenhuizen sees becomes visible.

This book is kind of madness - the house and his ability or inability to see it consumes Malgas and I found his deterioration really difficult to read, primarily because Niewenhuizen seems so unaffected by it. He sucks Malgas in and then blows hot and cold all over him so the poor man never knows where he stands. And then there's the house. The ability to see the house if you use your brain in the right way reminded me a little of Peter Pan (although there are no other similarities besides slight discomfort with the main protagonist) but in the context I can see how making people believe a structure is real when they have no other grounds to believe it is than your word could be an allegory for society. Ivan Vladislavic is a South African author and I have read that the novel is a commentary on the collapse of apartheid.

I think that knowing that made the reading experience more difficult for me, as I was constantly struggling to find it in the story, rather than just reading for the story's sake. The story itself is very compelling and the characters are very vividly drawn, if not very likeable. There's an interesting aspect of being observed throughout the novel, because Mrs Malgas is constantly watching from the window, and again because of my knowledge of some of the context I couldn't help equating her with the wider world watching events in South Africa, condeming while having very limited understanding of what was actually going on.

At the end it is her acceptance of the situation that snaps Malgas out of it and brings him back to reality. Really I felt a little confused by the end but I think that speaks more to what I was looking for in the book rather than any issue with the book itself. I didn't feel like I'd managed to put together all the pieces and that left me feeling a little discombobulated. Overall though the story was really unique and very thought-provoking. I'd really suggest giving it a try if you like books that are slightly out of the ordinary.

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