Helena Verbloem, a middle-aged lexicographer, is employed to assist in the creation of a dictionary of Afrikaans words that have fallen out of use. Words such as dyvelaar, dermbeen and dermbeendoring.
And then there are all the words linked to death, words like doodgewaan (mistakenly assumed dead), doodhoumetode (method by which an animal mimics death), doodag (day of death), doodgegooi (very much in love; literally 'thrown dead') and my favourite, doodkisvoete (feet as large as coffins).
At this point in the book, as you may have guessed, they are up to the letter D.
A few weeks after starting the job two things happen: Helen is burgled and she starts to fall in love with her boss. She is more bothered by the former than the latter, so much so that when the police only manage to recover nine of the twenty-three shells stolen from her house (yep, that is all they take, her collection of rare shells) she starts investigating the crime herself.
The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach is a novel about death - the death of language (can Afrikaans survive in the new South Africa?), the death of Helena's family (she looks back at the loss of her parents and siblings years before) - but it takes that theme further to become a book about extinction. Helena's office is located within Durban's Natural History Museum and during her lunch breaks she converses with the curators and other staff about the origins of life, of fossils and the demise of the dinosaurs. The absence of things is a recurring theme.
And yet Winterbach, who translated the novel into English herself along with her brother, Dirk, does not allow these dark themes to lead to a dark novel. OK, so it is dark-ish but there are moments of beautifully observed comedy and wonderful interludes in which long lists of Afrikaans words are catalogued and defined.
There is also Helena's fascination with Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis which runs through the story. She reads it early on in the novel and finds herself haunted by certain images and keeps spotting parallels within her own life. It is a weird book to choose to include in this way but it kind of works.
There is a lot to like about The Book of Happenstance.
I don't know how many Afrikaans books you have read but this is my first. It is published by Open Letter Books, a non-profit making publishing house for books in translation. If you want to read a bit of it right now then there is a section over at the Asymptote website.