When South African author Anne Landsman says that writing her stunning novel, The Devils Chimney (Soho Press) , was like dreaming," she isn't kidding. This book is the stuff of dreams – lyrical and strange, violent and beautiful. But Landsman has always chosen "to live somewhere else in her head".
The bond Street apartment she share with her husband and daughter is long way from small-town Worcester, South Africa, where Landsman grew up the daughter of country doctor whose family home doubled as his office. Both her parents were first-generation South African Jews, descendents of Lithuanians who arrived during the turn-of-the-century wave of immigrations. "There were boats leaving Australia, South Africa, and if you had family here you went here," she says. "It wasn't as stratified as Europe. How people though about Jews perhaps was less defined because everybody was a pioneer in one way or another."
But not everybody read Exodus at age 8. " I moved onto the Holocaust from Exodus…another Leon Uris book - Mila 18," Landsman says laughing. She confesses to spending the rest of her time "in the adult section of the library with octogenarians," reading her way our of Worcester via British historical romance writer Georgette Heyer. The adult Landsman counts Landsman counts Loren Eiseley's. The Immense Journey – a contemplation of earth and its creation – among her favorites.
This seemingly strange combination – history meets terror meet a precisionist romantic's love of poetic language meets the natural world – gracefully inform Landsman's fever dreamt book, which she categorize as "somewhere between magical realism and hyperrealism." The novel is narrated by Connie, an alcoholic, self-proclaimed "mongrel" living in Oudtshoorn, the now-defunct ostrich capital of South Africa and home of the terrifying cave of the book's title. It seems appropriate that Landsman is now eight months pregnant, and was carrying her first child while writing the first draft, because pregnancy and birth ("like some metal monster with 500 parts are ") are Connies's major themes, as are sense of loss and on longing inextricable from the land. ( "It's cold ad dying," Connie pines at one point. " The last of my feathers are turning to ash. The mountains are breaking.")
Connie tell her story by telling the similar, tragic story of a very different woman – moneyed, English adulterous Miss Beatrice, living in 1919 – back when those kooky birds were turning a profit. (These spooky ostriches don't hide heads in the sand – imagine a single, charp toenail.) Landsman draws on her daughter-of-a-country-doctor waiting-room experience to invoke her characters – from mixed-race blacks Boerejoods (Afrikaner Jews)' mongrel Connie to blue-blood Beatrice and she channels the Xhosa and Afrikaans voices of her past with a linguist's ear.
Landsman came to New York in 1981 and "fell in love just stayed and stayed " after getting her MFA in screenwriting and directing at Columbia. The city seamless manmade environment provided the contrasting backdrop necessary to conjure the South African landscape of this groundbreaking novel. The Devil's Chimney is scheduled to come out in England and South Africa in June of 1998, which makes Landsman fell she's "come out of the closet as South African." Dreams, like this book are lusciously haunting and otherworldly and, for Landsman, home.