The Book of Happenstance
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The Book of Happenstance

3.14 of 5 stars 3.14  ·  rating details  ·  50 ratings  ·  12 reviews

A middle-aged lexicographer, Helena Verbloem, travels alone to Durban to assist in the creation of a dictionary of Afrikaans words that have fallen out of use. Shortly after her arrival, her apartment is burglarized, and her collection of precious shells, shells that she had been collecting for a lifetime, is stolen. Meeting with indifference from the local police, she dec

Paperback, 254 pages
Published June 14th 2011 by Open Letter (first published January 1st 2006)
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July 2011

Several months before the death of her boss, Helena Verbloem's apartment is broken into, her seashell collection is stolen, and the thief leaves a turd on her carpet. It's an unusual crime, and so unremarkable the police barely seem interested in the case. If only the author felt the same way. But Helena is determined to find her stolen shells, and between days spent helping her boss, Theo Verwey (who has not died yet), catalogue old and obsolete words in Afrikaans for a book he plans t...more
Goodreads asks, What did you think? A look at my rating and my status updates will give you an idea. In a single, brutal word: boring. The story in this book is dull. Little happens in it, and what does occur doesn't amount to much of anything. Some of it seems pretty random, too--and while I appreciate an author who can riff on reality and produce the strange out of the mundane, Winterbach shows more taste for, well, happenstance. I guess the title of this book (assuming it has been translated...more
See my video book review in The Collagist here:
Jim Elkins
If an author is superficial about character, thoughtfulness, introspection, or inner life, that will become apparent sometime between the opening pages (when nothing much other than descriptions and subject matter are visible) and, say, halfway through the book (when a character will have developed, if the character is ever to develop). In this case I stopped reading on page 78 out of 254. The principal character is strangely bereft when someone steals her collection of sea shells. We're suppose...more
The Book of Happenstance begins with loss, as a linguistic specialist’s home is robbed and defaced, with her precious sea shell collection stolen. While it may appear a minor crime, the shells and the concept of personal loss becomes an underlying theme that weaves the story along and helps address the issues of science, language, and relationships. Going beyond a crime novel, there are elements of social commentary in it that examine the causes and effects of cultural changes.

Helena is a lingui...more
I really enjoyed this delicate, beautiful book. The back summary makes it sound like a mystery, which it is and isn't; there's a whodunit element, certainly, but it's more like an unconventional love story about the mystery of loss -- the loss of people, the loss of things, and the loss of words -- and the mystery of what it is appropriate to catalog, mourn for, search for, or let go. I loved the author's use of (and obvious love of) language, which I suppose means that I love the translator too...more
I am grateful to have received this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. The Book of Happenstance is about a lexicographer named Helena Verbloem who has her most prized possessions, her shell collection, stolen from her apartment. We meet Helena's interesting friends, acquaintances, and co-workers as she takes the investigation of the crime upon herself. The book offers an interesting look at the issues of love, obsession, death, and a search for meaning in life. Ingrid Winterbach's writing...more
Nicky McHugh
What a b-o-r-i-n-g book. I grew up in South Africa and spoke Afrikaans so was eager to read this acclaimed novel. "The Book of Happenstance" is a book where nothing happens. Any attempt at tension (between love and loss, scientific and emotional, etc.) feels desperate and does not work here. The character is as empty as her shells which are stolen. And the whole thing just does not come together. For the Goodreads reviewer who wonders if something got lost in translation, I don't think this is t...more
I didn't love the book, obviously. My sister-in-law read it & loved it. She laughed and loved the authors writing style. Therefore I deducted, perhaps you need to be an somewhat of an intellectual to really appreciate this book. Which, I just discovered, I'm not. Shocking, to my system really. This book has a lot of etymology & Afrikaans words & language. And it's as if she vomits her (O.C.D.) thoughts and stupid shells and so much more on every page. How's that for a review? Oh, and...more
I think this likely turns into an interesting allegory, but the prolonged, slow, detailed stuff on Africaans words and seashells in the first 50 pp is more than I can take.
I had to constantly talk myself into getting through this book, which I found painfully boring.
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Lettie Viljoen was a pseudonym of the South African author Ingrid Winterbach, who primarily writes in Afrikaans. She is married to Andries Gouws and has two daughters. She lives in Durban.

She was born in Johannesburg in 1948. She studied Afrikaans, Dutch and Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. Lettie Viljoen's first novel was entitled Klaaglied vir Koos ("Lament for Koos"), and was p...more
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