Happiness is a four letter word by Cynthia Jele

After the terrifying experience I had to go through in Seychelles I had to be sure about these South African writers. Can they all write as well as the aforementioned Angela Makholwa? Would I have to now start getting my supply of literature from the Southern African country which is now coming back with their Castle Lite (which is incidentally as good a lite beer as you will get anywhere)? I would soon know after I got a book called Happiness is A Four Letter Word by Cynthia Jele. The book had all the right things going for it. The 2011 MNET Literary Award, 2011 Commonwealth Best First Book Africa Region Award, Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award 2010/2011 shortlist and the Herman Charles Bosman 2010/2011 shortlist. If awards are any indication, this book is as highly recommended as they come.

I was very careful as I read the book this time though. I made sure that I didn’t have anything very important that might distract me. No pots boiling; check. No half drunk beer that might go flat as I went through the book at breakneck speed; check. Facebook and Twitter logged off my Blackberry: check. I was ready.

The book is about four urban South African women who are in their thirtieth year or thereabouts and the trials and tribulations that they go through. It is eerily similar to the Makholwa book despite having been published way after The 30th Candle. I eventually finished the book after a couple of weeks going around in Nairobi’s infamous traffic and I learnt a lot. Here are the top five lessons from Happiness;

1.    South African Women are way too forgiving

South African women are way too kind.

  • Princess is a tough as nails lawyer who fights for women’s rights getting men to pay maintenance (this is a foreign concept as I thought only happens in Hollywood movies under the name “alimony”). Then her actions shocked me as she suddenly forgives a murderous father and a lover who wrongs her that I refuse to tell you so you can read the book.
  • Tumi gets into a rage when she discovers that her hubby has had an affair with another girl who has gone on to conceive. Her response? She kicks him out and when he comes crawling back like you would expect him to, she forgives him so fast that you have to wonder why the fool took so long out there. He should have come back the next weekend expecting his forgiveness and a sandwich and a beer.
  • Then there is this Thomas who is set to marry Nandi and finds out the latter’s former lover is still in contact with her first love. His reaction is to go into a speech about how he is hurt and can’t believe that she did this to him. He then proceeds to pack his stuff into bags in an organized manner; socks and underwear in one bag, trousers and shirts into another. He leaves and she goes off chasing after him like we are in Bridget Jones Diary 4: The emasculation of the Mzansi man. Wonder why I am putting him in the South African Women category this Thomas fellow?  Well I don’t know any guy who would be so sensitive about being betrayed with such a calm response. No breaking of things? No threats of violence? Nothing? Even after being exposed to the most pain he has even gone under as a human being by his own confession. This doesn’t sound like a guy to me.

 2.    South African time is amazingly fast

The book starts as a young woman preparing to get married in two months time and her wedding is ruined completely in what turns out to be an opening dream sequence. We are introduced to the other three ladies who then proceed to live their lives. One character gets pregnant and loses her boyfriend . Another loses her husband to some floozy (wow MS word didn’t underline this word but refuses to recognize Raila Odinga. Or Musalia Mudavadi. Or Uhuru.  Haki yetu! Haku yetu!). And yet another who is married to a rich old man has a raging affair with another guy and everything ends well eventually. Meanwhile the soon-to-be married woman gets in contact with her former lover and her fiancé notices and leaves her for a period. As the book wraps up and things are being resolved (except the Miriam Mabena husband killer story which leaves me in suspense so perhaps there is a Happiness 2?) the ladies meet in the final scene. In their nighties showing off boobs and stuff I imagine happened at women bonding events, they discuss their issues and the soon-to-be-married one is asked how her marriage plans are going since the marriage is happening in two months. My first reaction was like, whoa! All the events in the book happened in a time span of what? Two days? One day? If the South Africans do things as fast as this book shows no wonder their companies are taking over the continent.

3.    Want women to buy your book? Have shoes on the cover.

Now that Oprah Winfrey has left her giddying TV heights and wrapped her Oprah show, publishers the world over are in a true dilemma. Being mentioned as a book for her book club would almost guarantee multiple reprints. This applied to all the author’s books and there was room that the publisher’s other titles would even get some leftover love. With the book club out the door it’s getting harder to fathom what readers would like and publishers are forced to actually forced to go through this whole “work” process that involves research etc. The publishers of Happiness, Kwela Books seem to have taken the short cut if this Happiness book is to be understood. It has been said women are the greatest purchasers of books. We also have heard that women love shoes; nothing tickles their fancy as much as hot footwear. So when the subject matter is about hip urban youngish women the book cover must have a picture of shoes. Women won’t bother picking up the book to read the content on the back cover, just have some snappy shoes and the books will fly off the cover. It worked for The 30th Candle. It will probably work for Happiness right? I can’t wait for the South African reprint of Bridget Jones Diary and Waiting to Exhale.

4.     Book Awards mean nothing (except money and stuff)

When K24 launched in Kenya a few years ago they didn’t have a lot going for them. All they had was former CNN news dude Jeff Koinange who had left the international news station in not very flattering circumstances. They started the station and before long the station started referring to themselves as the “award winning K24” station. The award they had gotten? An award for helping jigger fighting. Ahadi Trust issued this award to anyone who had given any space to the campaign. So K24 jumped on that and christened themselves the “award winning K24.” Initially people laughed but eventually they started winning real awards. Which leads me to this book; how can anyone who does anything to do with selecting outstanding books select this book to represent anything? This book is not a page turner. It is not an intense read that leaves one yearning for more. It’s a book I finished partly because I had to finish it, not because I was compelled to. How the awards committees chose this book to be their best first book or book to watch is beyond me. No new ideas. No old ideas told in a new way. Nothing. Whoever gave the first award to this book did a disservice to the rest of us as we now all have to defend the indefensible. How did they not see the Rift Valley sized chasms in the plot? Or perhaps they saw the shoes on the cover and it immediately said to themselves ‘award winning.” The heck?

5.     The Road to Eldoret continues to be my worst literary experience

I may not have enjoyed this book as much as I enjoyed The 30th Candle. Or Niq Mlongo’s Dog Eat Dog. Or Zukiswa Wanner’s Men of the South. It is not of the same quality. However it is not the worst book I have read. My worst literary experience in the last decade continues to be Tony Mochama’s The Road to Eldoret. Much as I thoughts Happiness was unimpressive, I suspect if I find myself with another reading experience like  The Road to Eldoret, I may just have to continue importing my books from that Southern African country, Nigeria, Uganda or Zimbabwe.