Book review: Bubbles (Rahla Xenopoulos)

It’s a flimsy premise.

A beautiful young girl grows up on the wrong side of the tracks in 1940s South Africa. She moves to big, bold Joburg where an Orange Grove bookie takes her under his wing.

Having mastered the (tawdry) tricks required to ‘beguile’ a man, she joins a circle of rich but sinister young hotshots. Utterly out of her depth and completely mis-reading how high society works, Bubbles lands in real danger.

Flimsy yes, but a) exquisitely written with fascinating first-person narration, b) based on the true local mystery of the life and death of Bubbles Schroeder, whose murder has never been solved, and c) unputdownable in its flow and rhythm.

Here’s a quick sample:

“Wouldn’t you know, for all that hard work and self-educating, I misunderstood a lot of things in my short life. But he seemed so utterly taken with me, why, I still think that if he hadn’t had his friends with him that night, we may just have stood a chance. I had played myself so carefully, always careful to be gay and never have my own opinions. They don’t like it when a woman has her own opinion, you know. Better just to smile sweetly and agree with everything they say. Oh, a man never goes for a thinking girl, opinionated girls have absolutely no appeal.”

Another lovely part of this story is the setting: Lichtenburg, Vereeniging, Orange Grove, Rissik Street, Illovo, all circa mid-1940s.

Department store John Orrs is a hugely big deal. Real people travel by tram, but a select few drive cars. Artists live in ivy-tendrilled cottages in big gardens on Dunkeld’s Bompas Road. And there’s nothing finer than high tea at Anstey’s: sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Bubbles says,

“The casuals sat around the card table…just talking. Not about me or races and bets, it was all about the Nats who had beaten Smuts at the polls. ‘It will just be vetkoek, not fettuccini, they won’t want Italians cooking,’ said Luigi, looking sombre. ‘There’s talk of them moving the black people out of town into shtetls,’ said one. ‘I think you’ll find you’re overreacting there,’ said another.”

This is a wonderful book. And a superb piece of local fiction. Read it. Please.