The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.

Killing Karoline by Sara-Jayne King, published August 2017 by Jacana/MF Books

I read this dramatic memoir a while back. Out of the MF Books/Jacana stable, it is a searing transcontinental, cross-racial memoir with a series of grim and bizarre twists that, true to life writing, is way stranger than fiction.

It kicks off with little Karoline being born, in 1980, under apartheid’s twisted Immorality Act. Under that legislation, both Karoline’s white mother and black father could have been arrested and imprisoned –and the child taken into care.

In a further twist, Karoline’s biological mother, who doesn’t come out of this tale too well, is already engaged to a white South African who is today a well-known wine farmer. This, in and of itself, as a bit of a wine fundi, got my mind whirring.

But there’s more. Karoline’s mother goes ahead with her pregnancy, which could, after all, be her fiancé’s.

So they wait and see. Karoline is born; she seems fairly pale, as is sometimes the case with mixed-race babies, but as the weeks pass, she darkens – as do the marital clouds.

What happens next leads us to the title – and I won’t tell you more (plenty of spoilers above), except to say that she comes back to life in suburban South-East England, riding ponies – as you did in the 99% white middle-class Home Counties of the time. However, increasingly Sara-Jayne (as she is now called) struggles with her identity, with consequences that threaten her emotional, physical and spiritual health.

The bizzarreness – and tragedy – do not stop there... and includes the rocky path she treads to reconciliation with some of her biological family; but you will have to buy the book to find out about that. And it’s very much worth the cover price to do so.

Her journey encompasses family tragedy, alienation, self-harm, addiction and time spent in rehab clinics so is, to clobber a cliché, a cracking good read. And it more than delivers on the questioning promise of its eye-catching cover.

What happens when the baby they buried comes back to life? Trust me: it’s one helluva rollercoaster ride finding out.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul, published in May 2017 by Picador.

Scaachi Koul – pronounced with a silent first ‘c’ (or rather, not pronounced) – is a bit of a phenomenon. Let’s start with her seriously cool (sic) and unpronounceable name. So that’s Scaachi as in Saatchi, like the ad agency or art collection then. Glad we’ve got that sorted. And then there’s that title – often reduced to its initials, O.D.W.A.B.D.A.N.O.T.W.M, which indeed appears on the book’s title page. The cover’s edit of it is yet cuter. This is a book and writer with chutzpah – or whatever the Kashmiri equivalent of chutzpah is…

Moving on to her writing, which is the closest you’ll get to millennial-literary-hilarious that you can find anywhere on the planet. If that’s a thing – and if it isn’t, it should be. I met Scaachi Koul because I asked her to sign a copy of O.D.W.A.B.D.A.N.O.T.W.M at last year’s Open Book festival – it was to be a birthday gift for my sister. In it she wrote: “Sarah! Happy birthday! Be nice to your brother, but not too nice.” This is classic Scaachi Koul – at once warm and loving, and then she scythes it out from under you.

Her relationship with her father – which is one of the central themes of this delightful collection of essays – is a case in point. Clearly they love each other dearly, but there are moments of tension, as her delightful email exchanges with him, dropped explosively between chapters, demonstrate. Here is one, verbatim:

Papa, November 30, 2012

You act like I did nothing for you

like you were raised by wolves.

Scaachi, November 30, 2012

When’s my birthday?

Papa, November 30, 2012

I don’t need to answer that.

Koul specialises in bizarre juxtapositions of the existential – racism, hairism (also a thing), fear of flying, seriously abusive social media trolling – with the hilarious. This disarms the reader at every turn of her elegant prose. Did I mention she can write? She more than can. Some examples of the humour, of which there is plenty… Why does she call her long-suffering boyfriend Hamhock? Apart from a deeply obscure reference to Lego, we are never told… And then there’s her father’s deeply dark phone conversation closers, like: “Anyway, I’ll be here. Staring into the abyss.”

Ultimately, Scaachi Koul’s take on life is all types of real – surreal, unreal, hyper-real but, mostly, just charmingly, wittily, often heart-wrenchingly, completely recognisably real. She is a voice you need to hear, to read, to understand and rejoice at. Go do so before the abyss gets you.

The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.
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