BOOKS: The Devil's Chimney

Anne Landsman
The Devil's Chimney
Soho Press

Suggested subtitle: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ostrich Farming, But Were Afraid to Ask. Anne Landsman's debut novel interweaves the stories of two South African women bound by passion, desolation, race, and sex--and ostriches.

Connie has been rendered hollow by the death of her baby four decades earlier, and by her shotgun marriage in which insults and hurled ashtrays take the place of pillow talk. Through a series of alcohol-induced hazes, Connie takes us back to 1910, when South Africa's Oudtshoorn provided the world with prized ostrich feathers. Henry is an inept ostrich farmer who dreams of riches and abandons his wife, Beatrice. She responds by cutting off her hair, putting on pants, and learning the care and feeding of ostriches from her despised Jewish neighbor, the "Ostrich King." But as acrimony mutates into lust, Beatrice beds the Ostrich King and her two married, "coloured" servants. Before long, her belly starts to get suspiciously round--at which time Henry reappears, more crazed and full of hubris than ever. Hell, as is its wont, breaks loose.

Landsman presents us with an inebriated sort of magical realism, her language occupying a world in that nebulous space between dream and daylight, beauty and horror, hate and desire. She makes her rough poetics work particularly well with the character of Connie, who speaks in an unconscious synecdoche that lends her an awkward simplicity. The Devil's Chimney demands a careful read, but it repays your attention generously.

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