Book Review: Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok

Sister-Sister. “One-for-me-and-one-for-you.” In childhood Thuli and Sindi are inseparable, pinkie-linked by a magic no one else can understand.

Thuli and Sindi are children of the new South Africa. Now-South Africa, that is alike and yet unlike the one we know. The cities are the same, and the people are the same; even the diseases are the same, but subtle differences in transport, business, crime and religion give their story a mystical quality.

Two little girls are raised in poverty, with no other family but their mother. Then a strange uncle arrives, sharing news that will change their lives in ways unforeseeable. This novel skillfully interweaves myth, culture, magic and crime into a tale of delicate suspense.

The prose is incredible. Descriptive, but not overdescriptive. The reader must continue reading to piece the puzzles of the world together, but there is always enough guidance to remain on track. There is something dark and poetic about it that had me looking in the closet before I went to bed, long before the real action started.

You cannot get comfortable with the events, because the moment you do, Zadok reveals a completely new twist.

sistersiser quote

One gets the idea that we are getting only a glimpse into the lives of these sisters, each haunted by misperceptions, imperfections and the weight of circumstance. Thuli and Sindi are guarded, as if the reader threatens their unstable world, and that contributes again to a wholly unusual – but incredible – read. We are not offered a beginning-to-end tale, although we are offered a window into various stages of their lives. And in this book, that glimpse is enough, because reading a story is by far not the only thing the reader gets. This is not an adventure with a beginning and an end.

This may be one of the best South African novels I have read in a long, long time. I was drawn into the language, and Zadok paints with words as if with oils – deep and delicately. Her descriptions were on-point. One of my favourites, “Auntie smelled of cigarette smoke and Vaseline Intensive Care in the yellow bottle. Sweet and bitter, like granules of tinned coffee. The aroma, combined with the lolloping rhythm of her stride, might have put Sindi to sleep if Auntie hadn’t been so bony. Sindi struggled to find a comfortable resting place for her head on Auntie’s shoulder. She spent the entire journey shifting her cheek between the point of Auntie’s shoulder and the ridge of her collarbone.

How wonderful is that? Especially the last (bolded) sentence just broke my mind. Anybody who was ever carried on someone’s hip as a child will understand the description, yet I have never seen it described, or thought to do so. That is how on-point this novel is.

This is not fantasy or sci-fi or dystopian or a thriller. It is all those things, but it isn’t, either. It is a book I might actually re-read, one day.

While distinctly South African, I think a foreign audience would enjoy the book as well. The jargon is mostly contextual, and non-English words are googleable. The novel is written not only in English, but in atmosphere, and not understanding a word or two will not take away from the experience. There were some things I did not understand at first, but they make sense later. This is not a novel for instant gratification – you have to trust the author to take you where she wants you to go.

This book is hard-core and really packs the punches in a way that you don’t realised you’ve been punched until you can’t breathe. I cannot recommend reading it enough – it is absolutely thrilling and binding, and the art of the story is unsurpassed.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok”

  1. I’m so thrilled and flattered that you made a beautiful piece of art from my novel. Not to mention, grateful for the wonderful review. But no one has ever made art from my work before, other than cover designers obviously. Thank you.

    1. You’re most welcome, and thank you for stopping by and for writing a wonderful book! It was really an incredible read. I should mention that the actual art (background) is from creative commons, I should probably learn to put that in the credits. The basic edits and the quote were added in by me. One day, hopefully, I’ll be able to do the WHOLE artwork.

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