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Penguin SA

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Read an exclusive extract from The Peculiars, Jen Thorpe’s debut novel set in contrary Cape Town


The PeculiarsPenguin is proud to present The Peculiars, the debut novel by Jen Thorpe:

Phobias abound at the Centre for Improved Living, where Nazma goes for help. She’s crazy about baking and desperately wants to become a pastry chef, but her fear of driving keeps her stuck working in a train-station kiosk, where she sells stale food to commuters while dreaming of butter croissants and fresh strudel.

The Centre is also a lifeline for Sam, who is scared to death of being robbed and spends his days in his pyjamas in front of his computer, his house alarm always armed.

Like the rest of the patients, Nazma and Sam want to face their fears, but will four weeks at the Centre be enough to change their lives? And will the two allow their budding romance to bloom without letting their phobias get in the way?

Meanwhile, the Centre risks losing its funding, a fear that Ruby, the Centre’s eccentric director, must face while she tries to manage the patients’ fears.

Set in a Cape Town as peculiar as its characters, The Peculiars is Jen Thorpe’s heart-warming and humorous debut.

Introduction by the author:

I began The Peculiars in 2011, inspired by the NGOs I had worked with in the past and their incredible resilience and usefulness in South Africa.

At the time I was experiencing a driving phobia, and was interested to examine this type of fear could be dealt with on an individual and group level. I did a lot of research into the psychological and physical aspects of phobias, and also drew on my own experience.

I find Cape Town to be such a bipolar city at times – extreme wealth and poverty live alongside one another, and people are afraid of so much. At the same time, it’s possible to draw hope and healing from ordinary people, and I think that is what I wanted to explore with my book.

About the author:

Jen Thorpe is writer and researcher with an interest in women’s rights. She writes for a number of online and print publications. She founded the My First Time women’s writing project and the first collection of stories from the project was published in 2012.

Read an exclusive extract from The Peculiars:

* * * * * * *


Nazma was in denial about several things, one of which was that working at the kiosk was going to become her full-time job. It was supposed to be a temporary job until she found a real one, but she had worked there almost every day for the past three months. She wanted to be a pastry chef, and spending her days in the kiosk with its stale food was like being an artist and having to do colouring by numbers. But she had scared herself out of possibly ever being able to get a proper job. In this city – in any city in South Africa – you had to be able to drive. Transport fascism had doomed her to a life of working for her parents.

   To keep herself busy Nazma conducted daily kiosk experiments. This morning it was an exercise in measurement. She was balanced on tiptoe, on her left foot, with the smell of curry spices and cigarettes drifting into her nostrils, tickling the hairs and reminding her brain where she was – in a tiny train-station kiosk waiting for her world to change.

   Her left hand was outstretched, its painted nails pressed up against the wall in front of her. Beneath this hand were jars of brightly coloured sweets. Their labels described multiple ingredients in Chinese, and their logos announced names like ‘Healthy Love Vitamins’ and ‘True Fruit Colours’. Next to them was the stack of cigarette cartons from which loose cigarettes were handed through the bars to those in the throes of nicotine addiction.

   In the right corner, beneath her outstretched right arm and directly beneath her right hand, was the old-fashioned cash register. Its numbers had long since worn away from vigorous pressing in countless sales. Nobody needed receipts from here, and when they did they didn’t get them.

   Above her right arm and hand was the shelf where the newspapers stood. The shelf itself was not much to look at. It was painted white but the paint was peeling, and every now and then she would have to dust curls of paint off the pies and other baked goods before she heated them. It was so poorly lit inside the room that nobody noticed any of this, so she and her parents hadn’t bothered to repaint the shelf. The peeling paint was perhaps a chemical aversion to the news in the papers. Die Son, Daily Voice, and other sources of shock journalism screamed headlines such as ‘Baby eats poisoned cat and survives’, ‘Father says mother drove him to the brothel’, and ‘Strange sex a growing market’.

   She found the size of the newspapers appealing. They weren’t too big to unfold comfortably, and she thought that this simple design was perhaps why they sold so well. They were easy to hold on public transport or in a crowded space. A while back she’d picked one up to read. The headline that day had been about a soccer star who had hired a tokoloshe to help him defeat his opponents. Nazma had wondered if the tokoloshe was like voodoo, where you have to believe in it for it to work, or if he could work on you whether or not you believed in him. Thinking about this had made her feel quite nervous, and she’d had to sit with the door open and her feet up on the stool for the rest of the afternoon. She didn’t read the papers any more; she didn’t need the extra stress.

   Another source of dismay inside the kiosk was the food. Abigail, Nazma’s mother, told those outside the bars that the baked goods, normally pies or samoosas or sausage rolls, were made fresh every day. Abigail’s earnest voice, bovine eyes and the low prices of the pies allowed customers to convince themselves that she was telling the truth. Technically, on Mondays and Thursdays, she was. On the other five days of the week they were freshly reheated, paint curls dusted away. Nazma always worried that someone would complain about the paint or get food poisoning or something from the pies. She made sure to dust them extra well each time before putting them in the microwave.

   The microwave was near-prehistoric. It had weathered the move from Tongaat and was now underneath Nazma’s right foot. The distance from corner to corner in the kiosk was only a little more than a metre: she probably could have taken the chance and put her left foot up to become fully suspended above the floor, but didn’t want to descend into complete lunacy. After all, the microwave’s clock told her it was only ten in the morning.

   So there she was, part spreadeagled, in the four corners of her tiny train-station kiosk. The yellowish glow from the uncovered bulb cast a strange light on all the items in the store. This was lucky for Nazma because if it hadn’t made everything look so unappealing she suspected she might have become obese from eating all of the pies herself, one at a time, day in and day out. Obesity from comfort eating was one of her more realistic fears.

   Julius, the station guard, was standing on the platform trying to see her movements through the security bars. He had seen her attempt to put her foot over her head before, as well as various other acrobatic feats, but this was new. She seemed to have truly lost it this time. He radioed his colleague at Newlands to tell him she was at it again, and then continued to watch with interest. He wondered how long before she flung the door open in a panic this time.

Her experiment to touch four shop corners while standing in the middle of it had proved less time-consuming than she had hoped. Thinking she was unobserved, Nazma took down her hands and foot after one last consideration of moving her left foot to join them, wondering if she could balance up there like Spiderman. She brushed down her hair, sat back down on the stool, and waited. It was too much. She opened the door and stepped out, despondently breathing in the fresh air. Julius felt sad too, as his show was over sooner than expected. He got up and walked towards the subway.

   As she stood in the doorway, Nazma began to daydream about baking. Her favourite recipes were for simple things. Apple crumble, vegetable soup, butter chicken curry, muffins, crunchies, vetkoek and biscuits. She missed spending days in the kitchen preparing food for her family, as she had done to practise while she was studying. Now, because she wasn’t bringing in any income, she was relegated to working here, serving warmed-up food and stale chocolates. She contemplated suffocating herself with a pie, but instead returned inside and slumped a little deeper into her stool. She noted a possible next experiment: slouching as far as she could without falling off. The thought of living with her parents and working in the kiosk forever made her feel light-headed, and she put her head between her knees.

   Breathing deeply, she had to admit to herself that, on an ordinary day, there were some highlights in the kiosk. At seven-fifteen, give or take a few minutes depending on Metrorail’s daily delays, a train would pass through her station. Before its screeching brakes, the gentle tinkle of a tambourine and the steady throbbing of a drum would fill the air. The drumming came from the people in that particular carriage all stomping their feet in tune to the singing of the crowd. She had never left the shop to see what was happening in the carriage, nervous that the illusion she had of the magical musical train would be shattered by the revelation that it was just a group of ordinary people, singing an ordinary, comprehensible song. Or worse, that it was religious.

   Nevertheless, she strained her ears each morning, waiting for the train to arrive. When she heard the music she would close her eyes and the light behind her lids would pulse red, warm yellow and soft orange. It was a daily dose of Zen before breakfast. While the warmth lingered she used it to psych herself up for the day ahead. When the train left the station she always felt lighter.

   Now, she thought about the night before, and how strange it had all been. She remembered the long queue, the old man with his gilded stick and that strange woman who had watched them with the binoculars, the smell of the smoker’s shirt against her face. Not being able to go out alone at night meant she hadn’t really spent much time around men since she’d finished studying six months before. Public transport really limited a woman’s ability to get some.

Book details

Image courtesy of Women24


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