‘There was nothing like a bit of controversy to sell a book’ – Read an excerpt from Each Mortal Thing, the new novel by Michiel Heyns
 More about the book!

Read an excerpt from Each Mortal Thing, the 10th novel from critically acclaimed author Michiel Heyns, courtesy of Penguin Random House!

Each Mortal Thing takes the reader on a heartwarming journey of self-discovery, reminding us that even small acts of kindness can truly change the world.

Get ready to fall in love with the power of friendship and the beauty of the written word.

About the book

When Natasha, a novice writer from South Africa, is nominated for a major British literary prize, Terence, a young university lecturer, undertakes to introduce her to the sights of London.

However, London and its literary cliques are a far cry from Natasha’s Karoo hometown: through no fault of her own, she is disqualified, and their affair ends in tragedy. Terence, whose best friend accuses him of suffering from a Good Samaritan complex, now takes an interest in a rough sleeper and his dog that he meets outside a tube station. This turns out to be a complex undertaking.

As the ghosts of his past relationships are visited upon him, Terence is forced to reconsider the meaning of human connections – how our lives touch, and are touched by, others.

Michiel Heyns’s Each Mortal Thing shows us the metropolis through fresh eyes, calculates the cost of acts of kindness, and speaks to the grace that friendship can bestow on us.

Read an excerpt:


Friday 26 July 2019

On this, heralded in the press as the hottest day in human memory, the train lumbered along as lethargically as if suffering from heatstroke. Which it apparently was: ‘Owing to sagging overhead lines,’ a chipper voice had announced, ‘and the danger of buckling rails, this Piccadilly Line train to Heathrow will be travelling at half its normal speed. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.’

Terence Winshaw suppressed a groan. Any inconvenience, bloody hell. He should have taken the Heathrow Express, but at more than twenty quid it would have blown his weekly budget; even the Tube fare was stretching it, es­pecially since he’d probably feel obliged, for no good reason, to pay Natasha de Villiers’s fare back to town as well. He could have suggested to her publishers that they might invest that much in their new author, but her publishers were in actuality a husband-and-wife outfit operating on a shoestring out of their basement in Islington, and also the parents of his best friend, so it would have felt all wrong to ask them for money. In truth, Terence had a temperamental aversion to asking anybody for money. Jenny, his girlfriend, said it was mis­placed bourgeois pride. She, the daughter of a New York investment banker, had no qualms about asking anybody for anything.

She had in fact, that morning, as he was getting dressed, urged Terence to take the Heathrow Express and bill Oryx Editions.

‘The goddamn novel has been shortlisted for – what is it? The Jane Austen Prize?’ she’d asked, from her reclining position in her king-sized bed, sipping the mug of Earl Grey tea he’d made her.

‘The Elizabeth Gaskell Prize, actually.’ Terence checked his morning growth in the bathroom mirror and wondered if he should shave.

‘Gaskell, Austen, whatever, so it’s going to earn Unicorn Editions or whatever a shitload of money if it actually wins the prize, and isn’t she the one most likely? After all, she’s young, black and a woman, which more or less ticks all the boxes, doesn’t it?’

‘More to the point, she has real talent,’ Terence said. ‘So yes, she may well win the prize, and of course I’m hoping she will—’

‘What’s in it for you? You hardly know the woman. Was she even a stu­dent of yours in Cape Town?’

‘She was in a seminar group that I taught, yes,’ he replied. ‘I can’t say I got to know her personally, but I remember her well as … reticent and a bit tongue-tied. Her English was good, if not confident, and she was, you know, responsive and engaged with the work.’

Jenny sniff-snorted sceptically into her Earl Grey. ‘The work? I suspect she was responsive to your puppy-dog eyes and engaged with the ripple of biceps under your sleeves. I’m told all the women and half the men in your classes fall in love with you.’

‘I don’t know who would have told you that, but I’m pretty sure Natasha did not fall in love with me. She’s not the type.’

‘What do you know about her type? She sent you her novel out of the blue, didn’t she?’

‘Only because … you see, I’d commented favourably on her term paper way back, and she thought I might be able to pass her novel on to somebody—’

‘Which you just happened to be able to do.’

‘Look, I thought the novel was actually very good, and I mentioned it to Simon and he read it and commended it to his parents—’

‘And so that’s why they’ve left you to do the honours? Surely, as her pub­lishers, they’re supposed to be looking after her?’

‘I suppose so. But theirs is a small outfit, and the shortlisting for the prize was unexpected, so they’re tied up with one of their other authors, apparently a very demanding Hungarian historical novelist.’ He was still examining his day’s growth in the mirror. ‘Do you think I should shave?’

‘Not if you’re going to use my razor. But granted that this … Anastasia—’


‘… Natasha is an as-yet-undiscovered genius, why should you feel the need to meet her at Heathrow? Isn’t there something a tad paternalistic about the assumption that she can’t fend for herself?’

Impossible to explain to Jenny, who had once admitted to having seen her first live sheep at the age of eight, that a young woman who had grown up in Beaufort West in the Great Karoo might find Heathrow and its hinterland as alien as the Amazon jungle. Six years in Britain had taught him not to open doors or surrender seats for women, but somewhere in his reptilian brain still lurked an atavistic impulse to shield the female of the species from the perils of existence. So he had offered to accompany Natasha de Villiers from Heathrow to the Airbnb her publishers had arranged for her, and she had accepted with evident relief.

‘You’ve not been to London?’ he’d asked, in their WhatsApp call.

She laughed, genuinely amused. ‘I haven’t even been to Johannesburg,’ she said. ‘I’ve never flown in my life.’

‘The flying’s not a problem,’ he joked. ‘British Airways will look after that. But yes, once they’ve disgorged you from their system, you’re on your own. So I’ll meet you at Heathrow.’

Terence looked about him at the other passengers, seeking to share a grimace of solidarity, but they sat stoically, unseeingly, or resignedly thumbing their mobile phones – reactivated now that the train had emerged from the seventh circle of hell. What were they hoping to find hidden in the darkness behind their little screens?

He opened his book, a copy of Natasha’s novel, In the Shadow of the Milkbush. He should probably have brought his iPad to deal with another couple of student essays, but he liked the idea of broadcasting Natasha’s book, even if only on the stony ground of the Piccadilly Line; irrationally, he felt a kind of possessive pride in it. Besides, he did really enjoy rereading it. He had, after his initial surprise at receiving it, warmed to its unassuming yet sophisticated reworking of The Story of an African Farm, its skilful decentring of the narrative to focus on the characters who had been peripheral to Olive Schreiner’s purpose and conceivably interest: that is, the farm labourers, in particular ‘the Kaffir woman’, in Schreiner’s now scandalous designation. Natasha, she told him in her covering letter, had written it in Afrikaans, and it had been translated into English by ‘a close friend’. The result, he thought, was a muscular hybrid of Schreiner’s ruggedly lyrical English and Natasha’s dignified Karoo Afrikaans, as judged by the copy of the original she enclosed.

She had been touchingly tentative in sending it to him: I am sorry to inflict this on you, and, of course, you need not read it, but I have given up try­ing to find an agent, and I thought with your literary contacts you might know someone who would be willing to take a look at my novel.

Terence had smiled at the idea of his ‘literary contacts’: as a Teaching Fel­low at Bentham College, he was hardly at the epicentre of literary London; but then, after reading the novel, it had occurred to him that in a sense his friend Simon was such a contact, through his parents, both of whom Terence knew and liked. And Simon had readily passed on the novel to his parents with his own and Terence’s commendations, and they had liked it and agreed to publish it. The advantage of such a small press, Simon’s mother, Selena Rawitz, maintained, was that one could take risks on the books one liked; the risk was never greater than one’s overdraft limit.

And, unexpectedly, the novel had found critical favour in the UK: the debut of a young woman writer of colour from South Africa, herself ‘born free’ but a daughter of apartheid, from ‘previously disadvantaged’ stock, offering a ‘courageous’ (to quote from the reviews) reinterpretation of Schreiner’s classic text, ‘foregrounding’ the ‘marginalised’ characters of the original, by implication offering a ‘corrective’ to Schreiner’s vision: the central character not the rebellious, progressive, declamatory Lyndall, but the submissive, barely articulate, anonymous ‘Kaffir woman’, here given the biblical name of Ester. There had been some kerfuffle around a perceived slight to Schreiner, who was still something of a feminist icon; but there was nothing like a bit of controversy to sell a book, and Milkbush had sold steadily, and even handsomely when it was shortlisted for the Gaskell.

The train proceeded spasmodically across the untidy semi-urban landscape: a discouraged countryside consorting scraggily with half-hearted urban creep; serried semi-detached ‘villas’, their unprepossessing backs turned to the railway line, making one wonder about their fronts; on the horizon a stubby church tower, the relic, no doubt, of a now-superseded village, of which it must once have marked the centre. Did anybody still go there on a Sunday morning, finding succour in its fusty obsolescence, riffling for sustenance in the scuffed prayer books with their mighty exhortations and plangent lamentations?

Not likely, Terence thought; it had just not yet been worth anybody’s while to demolish the pious little pile. He had limited veneration or use for organised religion: he had in his native country seen or heard of too many atrocities committed in its name. But, if he was distrustful of piety, he loved poetry, and he’d come to accept, gradually, grudgingly, that some great poetry had been generated by religion, even if often, at its most profound, through a troubled relation to its almighty progenitor. On such a day as this, when the earth seemed blighted by the breath of hell, Terence found himself thinking of poor Gerard Manley Hopkins, that tortured cleric, desperately declaring a belief that The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil, even while lamenting the absence of any present immanence: And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.

And that, thought Terence, was more than a hundred years before tower blocks burst into flame and reindeer started dying of hunger. What remained of Hopkins’s fervently invoked grandeur of God? Only TS Eliot’s wistful fancy of some infinitely gentle infinitely suffering thing? No, not even that: what gentleness could survive the Piccadilly Line on the hottest day in history? The day after a six-year-old boy had been thrown from an observa­tion platform at the Tate Modern by a troubled teenager? A few days after an unserious mountebank had been chosen as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? If, indeed, God’s grandeur were somehow to flame out, it could only manifest as some catastrophe of man’s making, another Hiroshima, nay, another Chernobyl, or an even more spectacular, unimaginable and yet entirely foreseeable consequence of the brinkmanship of mad babies and malign teddy bears masquerading as statesmen, sicked on by yowling masses of brainwashed followers. Or if not with a bang, then, as the poet foretold, with a whimper, as the last lake dried up and the last iceberg melted?


Extracted from Each Mortal Thing by Michiel Heyns, out now.

Categories Fiction South Africa

Tags Book excerpts Book extracts Each Mortal Thing Michiel Heyns Penguin Random House SA Umuzi

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