Rahla Xenopoulos’ “Tribe” is a brilliant novel about extraordinary friendships.

Tribe cover‘“Everyone is in love on MDMA, but this is where it peaks, the big blow out, Ibiza, 1997… the hedonist’s holiday…”’ Amid the euphoric, drug-fuelled highs, the raves, and the beach, a group of six people from different parts of the world form the deepest bond of friendship there is, becoming a ‘tribe’, apparently unshakeable in their love for each other. ‘“Sometimes in life there are moments when everything shifts.’’’ This is the premise for the stunning new novel, Tribe, by Rahla Xenopoulos, which shifts the reader.

Olivia is the London ‘it-girl’, a beautiful blonde, with expensive tastes, but deep emotions. Her husband, Benjy, indulges her, knowing he could never find someone better, and that she chose him, even though she’d resisted at first.

‘“I can’t fall in love with you, Benjamin Stone,” she’d said, sipping a mojito back in London. “Why not?” he’d laughed, knowing she would. “Because you have the attention span of a Sunday morning.” “What do you mean?” “You’ll be easy fun, but inevitably you’ll become Monday.” She’d been wrong; he’d prove himself as constant as eight days a week.’

Jude is the shy, Oxford-educated psychiatrist with a penchant for strumming a guitar. His partner, Tselane, is a South African who was exiled to London as a young child; someone who does not identify with the country of her birth. Brothers Hannes and Pierre were both involved in the Apartheid struggle movement. After becoming a member of the tribe, Hannes finally gains the courage to divorce his wife, admitting he’s gay, and escaping to the bush to start a luxury game lodge, but at the same time alienating his daughter. Pierre becomes a hotshot marketing executive, but balances his life with surfing while condemning the shallow nature of his profession.

Together, the tribe grows to depend on each other, forging beautiful and rare friendships; the kind that is the envy of those who will never experience it. But, five years after their Ibiza holiday, the group is torn apart. Jude has a drug overdose; unable to stick to the recreational, free love-type highs of his friends. Tselane bans most of the group, except for Olivia, from contacting Jude, to rid him of his triggers.

But, twelve years on, another knock at death’s door forces the tribe together at Hannes’ lodge, where they all have to confront their own demons, and examine the damage they’ve inflicted on one another. Feelings of guilt, abandonment, resentment, and jealousy spill out, as the six friends try to resurrect their friendship, and save each other. This group, this tribe, which considered themselves as gods and goddesses, turn out to be just as messy as everyone else.

The book is a testament of to extraordinary writing; the descriptions of its characters are rich, with an unusual and beautiful turn of phrase. In addition, the story is uniquely set against a soundtrack (yes, it’s not only movies that can do this). Coldplay’s “Yellow”, Faithless’ “Insomnia”, Jeff Buckley’s “Halleluja”, Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; these are just some of the songs that create a visceral response in the reader. I could hear each track in my head as I read the words. The novel is overwhelming and exhilarating.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith has called Tribe “The Less Than Zero of 2015”, referring to Brett Easton Ellis acclaimed 1985 novel of the name, about a group of disillusioned, rich, drugged-up youths in Los Angeles. How did she get an international music start to read this book? He’s a friend, Xenopoulos causally explains during our interview (podcast underneath). The book also reminded me of The Breakfast Club, something she agrees with.

Tribe is a story about confronting the darkest parts of oneself, about the rarest of relationships – real friendship. It’s not only the characters who are forced to confront their painful mistakes; the reader inevitably has to do the same. Despite its comparison to Less Than Zero, this novel is fresh, uniquely engaging, and unlike any I’ve read before.

Notable passage:

“The first wave of euphoria washes over and through the six people in the room as a deep bond develops between them.

And here’s the thing. If you were looking down at them from the Ibizan sky, you would know: they can do anything, be whoever it is they choose to be. This is just the beginning of the trip, the night, their friendship, of their entire lives.

Laughing and touching one another, they walk out the door. Benjamin grabs a pair of ‘70s sunglasses; white frames with dark lenses. He places them on Olivia’s face; she looks like Woodstock, 1969. Pierre looks at her and says, “Different drugs. When I met you in London, you were on coke, the ME drug. Now you’re on E, the US drug.

Outside it’s the summer of love all over again. People are popping pills called white doves, cars have smiley stickers, and strangers embrace. Boys sport green Afros and girls in fake fur bikinis dance in the street. This generation is going to get it right; they have better drugs.

Fuelled by serotonin as abundant as their beauty, they walk into the night.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Tribe is published by Umuzi.

BOOK CLUB READ – Ellen Kuzwayo’s “Call Me Woman” is as relevant today as in 1985.

Ellen KuzwayoIn 1985, social worker, teacher, community leader, and political activist, Ellen Kuzwayo published a brave autobiography, detailing the conditions under which women lived before and during Apartheid. The book, Call Me Woman, is a story about loss, pain, courage, and dignity, not only as experienced by one woman in South Africa, but for millions. Author Nadine Gordimer writes in the preface: “Ellen Kuzwayo’s life has been lived as a black woman in South Africa, with all this implies. But it is also the life of that generation of women anywhere — in different epochs in different countries — who have moved from the traditional place in home and family system to an industrialist world in which they had to fight to make a place for themselves.”

The story of late ANC MP, Ellen Kuzwayo, is one that reflects the reality of black women in South Africa for the better part of the twentieth century. Ellen was born in 1914 on a farm in the Orange Free State, a piece of land that had been in her family’s possession for near on a hundred years, but was dispossessed in 1974 under the Group Areas Act. Born before Apartheid, Ellen managed to avoid bantu education, and attended excellent schools and colleges. But her happiness was shattered when she married an abusive man, with whom she had two sons. Five years after her wedding, she made the tough decision to flee to Johannesburg, in order to protect her own life. Ellen’s sons, however, had to be left behind, something that left her heartbroken. In 1947 she filed for divorce, something that was frowned upon in the Christian community she belonged to. Because of the laws at the time, even after the breakup of her marriage, her sons still wouldn’t be placed in her custody.

It was in Johannesburg that Ellen became active in the community and in politics: she was appointed secretary of the ANC Youth League in 1946. She studied to become a social worker along with Winnie Mandela and Pumla Finca. In the 1960s Ellen became a leader in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which fought racism and discrimination against both black people, and women. She describes her five month-long imprisonment at the Johannesburg Fort (now part of Constitution Hill) for her association with Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement. The dehumanisation of black female prisoners there, is shocking; they weren’t allowed underwear or sanitary pads for when they menstruated. But following a campaign by Ellen and others, this changed. During her imprisonment, Ellen also describes an extraordinary and frank meeting she had with then-Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger.

Call Me Woman challenges the racist and patriarchal views that designated black women as unproductive, lazy, and unintelligent. African women faced ‘double discrimination’ due to their skin colour, and their gender. Under Apartheid, adult women were humiliatingly classified as ‘minors’, meaning any legal decisions about their lives, including the ability to travel, had to be approved by a male family member.

What makes this book different to so many other similar ones by more ‘prominent’ female struggle heroes, is that it was written during the zenith of Apartheid. In 1985, when the book was published, the government imposed a state of emergency, giving police more powers to violently suppress uprisings. Ellen’s experience of this is written in present tense, something that has a greater impact on the reader than a look back at the past.

In moving and humble language, Ellen describes how she and many others sometimes felt helpless in their fight for freedom, and the battle against bitterness and hatred. “Much as we accepted our shortcomings and limitations as individuals, we still believed that a contribution by every member of the black community, no matter how humble or small, can add to the efforts and contributions of many others. The results would be measured at the end. To give and fold our hands is to accept death before it takes over, defeat before the enemy proves his worth,” she writes.

Ellen Kuzwayo challenged not only racisim, but deep-rooted sexism, both in African and Western culture. Even as she embraced women’s emancipation, she didn’t bow to becoming Westernised; as, Gordimer says, she Africanised the Western concept of women. With this book, Ellen became the first black writer to win South Africa’s premier literary prize at the time, the CNA Award.

This is a moving, heartbreaking, and inspirational story not just about hardship. Bessie Head, in the foreword, writes that despite the human suffering documented in the book, “there is a sense of triumph, of hope in this achievement…”

Notable passage:

“The black women in South Africa have shown outstanding tenacity against great odds. We shall never give in to defeat. Today [in 1985] we remain determined, like the women of our community of previous generations, who have left us a living example of strength and integrity… The commitment of the women of my community is my commitment — to stand side by side with our men folk and our children in this long struggle to liberate ourselves and to bring about peace and justice for all in a country we love so deeply. The old Setswana proverb has come alive with a fresh meaning for me at this point: Mmangoana o tshwara thipa ka fa bogaleng. It means: ‘The child’s mother grabs the sharp end of the knife.’”

Rating: 3½ out of 5

Publisher: Picador