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Reviewed: The Miracle of Crocodile Flats by Jenny Hobbs, Umuzi

The Miracle of Crocodile FlatsThe word that kept coming to mind while reading this delightful book was “mirth”. Not only the response the reader has to the sometimes sly, sometimes broad humour, but the relish with which Jenny Hobbs writes.

She must have laughed out loud when writing it. It reminded me that back in the day Jenny used to write an equally funny and irrepressible column in the old Darling magazine. “Blossom” was set there by Bez Valley and the wooing and the doings of a range of hilarious characters had us lining up at the CNA for each new instalment.

The fictional Crocodile Flats is a shabby settlement clustered on the fringes of an old mining town.

“It could be described in two words: Dead Endsville. But there were minor consolations. The shacks were served by a lively network of spaza shops, shebeens and itinerant dealers trundling their goods in liberated supermarket trolleys. The weather was temperate, the kids were mostly in school and there was no actual starvation.”

What Crocodile Flats has is pockets of every conceivable religion, from crusty Anglicans to the Correct Baptised God Came Down in Africa Church, led by the prophet Hallelujah. The Catholic nuns The Little Sisters of Extreme Destitution coexist uneasily with the Quakers, the Salvation Army and a Buddhist retreat., while Jewish and Muslim charities try to provide some relief too.

And so when young Sweetness Moloi sees a vision of Mary – Ma-Jesu – in a shack, smelling of vanilla cupcakes and as brown as can be, everyone wants a piece of the action, and everyone in the town is caught up the ensuing drama. As a counterpoint, a whisky-drinking Pretoria apparatchik is wanting to blitz Crocodile Flats off the map and relocate the inhabitants to a desolate new township.

Hobbs works on a grand, teeming canvas. There’s the tsotsi Smart Fikile and his hapless gang called the Lucky Boys, who are anything but. On a neighbouring farm the Boers have declared a Republic called Vanderlindelea with its own Constitution and coat of arms, ruled by Swart Barend Van der Linde. The crepuscular sisters Winifred and Dulcie sleep under a “patchwork blankets of cats”, while former yuppies Greg and Cassie wonder why the hell they ever left the city for the less than bucolic joys of the platteland. Girlie Ming runs the Beijing Bazaar and Benjamin Feinbaum the failing Outspan Hotel. Watching it all grumpily is the snuff-schnarfing Chief Mohlalipula, cowed by his brisk wife.

The action tumbles along as Hobbs skilfully conducts this manic orchestra of characters and voices. The world’s media descends on the (perhaps not) God forsaken Crocodile Flats and she builds it all to a delirious crescendo. I loved this roiling, witty and affectionate story, for its wise take on South Africa now, and its human heart. It’s the kind of book you send to friends living now in sterile suburbs of Perth or Toronto.

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