The Book of Happenstance begins with a loss, as a linguistic specialist’s home is robbed and defaced, with her precious sea-shell collection stolen. While the theft of the sea-shell collection may seem minor, it is this fact that builds the entire story of love, loss, science, language and relationships. I had never heard of Ingrid Winterbach prior to this book, and now that I have read this book, I will for sure read more works written by her.
Helena is a lexicographer of the Afrikaans language. She doesn’t want to do anything else but understand the essence of life, what it means to be alive and why live at all. She wants to know why she is here and why her life matters. For me that struck a personal chord throughout the book, after all, don’t we all want to know that at some point in our lives?
Helena’s life is estranged at the same time. She is divorced, rarely sees her daughter, her extended family is dead, and she has had a series of love affairs, trying to make sense of every single one of them. Helena has written a novel which has not been successful. When she gets the opportunity to move to Durban for a project, she jumps at it, only to get robbed after three months and is left devastated. Getting no help from the local police, she decides to solve the theft on her own with the help of her new friend from the Museum of Natural History, Sof. While she investigates, she mulls and ponders over her life – her ex-husband, her losses, her gains and begins to fall in love with her married boss.
As events unfurl themselves around her, Helena begins to realize the importance of ‘happenstance’ – the accidents which occur over a period of time to species, which allow them to adapt more successfully than their predecessors.
This novel takes the reader on a complex rollercoaster ride. Winterbach has structured the entire novel of course around Helena’s life; however she has masterfully managed to embody the concept of evolution around her life as well. The concept is striking and more so are the words, which are skillfully translated by the author and Dirk Winterbach. While there is a pervasive sense of dread and foreboding in the novel, there is also a sense of hope and wanting to live life to the fullest, which Helena ultimately realizes and wants to figure it all out. Read this book. It might get you thinking.