Thursday 28 June 2012

Review: The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss

I picked up The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. in our resort's convenience store whilst on our honeymoon, and was so intrigued by the blurb (and the cool cover), I impulsively bought it.

I knew nothing about the book going in - in more ways than one. Not only was I completely unaware of the book itself, I embarrasingly knew very little about its setting - South Africa during apartheid. Of course, I had a vague understanding of what had happened - I knew about the racial segregation and Nelson Mandela - but when apartheid ended I was four. In the many years since then there hasn't been a particular occasion that has called on me to learn more. Until now.

Which brings me to Jack V. Narrated by 11-year-old Jack, but with the occasional perspective of his adult self, it reads like a confessional memoir. Individual events and characters are vividly and often poignantly portrayed, twined together with threads of nostalgia, wistfulness and regret. There's a beauty in the storytelling and a frankness that packs a powerful punch, whether it be hinged on sadness or hilarity (or sometimes both at once).

Where the story failed, from my completely personal and ignorant perspective, was in the fact that there was an assumed knowledge of the background events. In creating a narrative of what it was like to live in South Africa during the last years of apartheid, Strauss keeps his focus narrow, even whilst commenting on major events or people. This is the tale of a boy who grew up in this context - it is all he knows, and to him there is no need to explain. It might make him cringe, it might make him sick, it might make him do hateful things, but it is what it is. It is his world.

This won't really be a problem for many, and normally it wouldn't really have been an issue for me, either - I would have put the book down, did some intensive googling, and come back to the pages armed with a lot more knowledge than I previously held. But being stuck (happily) on an island with no access to my old friend Google (unless I wanted to pay $25 a day, pffft), I had to go on being ignorant. Which was incredibly frustrating - mostly because I felt like I was missing references and meanings that I should have understood, or that would have been more powerful if I had known more (which I totally do now, BTW. Thank you, Google).

It's telling that my lack of knowledge, while irksome, didn't greatly effect my overall enjoyment of the book. Jack V is a quick and entertaining read, though not always an easy one. In keeping with the realistic tone of the whole story, the ending is somewhat open-ended, without a clean sense of closure that I usually prefer. Much like life, I suppose.

On another, far less D&M note... I didn't know how to segue into this so I'm just going to put it out there... The narrator is an 11-year-old boy who has just discovered what his own body can do. Think about it. It actually is kind of central to the story and his character, but even still, after fifty or so pages, I was like, enough with your penis already!

Rating: 3.5/5

Fine Print
Published: 2011, Jonathan Cape
Get It: Basement Books

Author Jacques Strauss discussing his book:

And a very, erm, interesting book trailer:


  1. *Love* that cover.

    This one sounds fascinating, but I, too, admit to ignorance about apartheid, although I've read a couple of books set in South Africa. I'll take your advice and do some googling before picking this one up. :)

    1. Glad it's not just me Steph. I suppose that's what happens when you're born during or immediately after an event - too late to remember it, too early to learn about it at school!
      Would love to know what you think of this one if you get to it.