Five of SA’s best fiction books set to go head-to-head for the Barry Ronge prize

AFTER months of deliberation the shortlist for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, in association with Porcupine Ridge, has been revealed. The winner, who will receive R100 000, will be announced on Saturday, June 24.

The five shortlisted books are: The Printmaker by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (Umuzi); Period Pain by Kopano Matlwa (Jacana Media); Little Suns by Zakes Mda (Umuzi); The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus); and The Safest Place You Know by Mark Winkler (Umuzi).

Speaking about the books, the judges, Rehana Rossouw, Africa Melane and Kate Rogan, highlighted writing of rare style and imagination, stories that chose the personal over the political, and themes that are fresh and provocative. “The words,” said chairperson Rehana Rossouw, “strike at the reader’s heart.”

Law-Viljoen’s quiet, finely calibrated novel, The Printmaker, is set in Johannesburg and centres on a reclusive printmaker named March, who makes his art obsessively – and alone – for decades.

When he dies a friend inherits the thousands of drawings and etchings crammed into the house and through his work sets out to understand her troubled friend. “There’s not a superfluous word in it,” said the judges.

Matlwa shows she has a long career ahead with this acute, powerful book, Period Pain, which centres on Masechaba, a young woman trying to find meaning in contemporary South Africa, a country wracked by social problems.

Mda’s Little Suns is set in 1903. A frail Malangana searches for his beloved Mthwakazi, the woman he had loved 20 years earlier and who he was forced to leave. Based on true events in history, it is a poignant story of how love and perseverance can transcend exile and strife.

In Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, she delicately traces the racial fault lines of the rainbow land through two strong-willed women. One is black, the other white, and for decades theyhave lived next door to each other in an affluent estate in Cape Town. One day, an accident brings them together.

“She doesn’t pretend to have the answers,” said the judges, “but she forces us to examine our deeply embedded racism. It’s very clever and deeply human.”

The final contender is The Safest Place You Know, in which Winkler tells the story of a young man who leaves the derelict family farm with no plan after his father’s violent death in the drought- stricken Free State.

Two people he meets on his way to the Cape will change his life forever. The story is set in the 80s, before everything changes.

“We were blown away by the magnificent writing,” said the judges, “the story went straight to the heart.”

This is the 17th edition of the Sunday Times fiction prize, named for Barry Ronge, the arts commentator who was one of the founders of the awards.

The criteria for the award stipulates that the winning novel should be one of “rare imagination and style … a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”.

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