By Daniel Jose Older
Some books are like tour guides. Grinning, they whisk you through enchanted avenues, each carefree laugh rehearsed and calculated, each anecdote sliding a little too smoothly into place. All the while, your eye wanders down the crooked back streets, and you wonder what myth and magic really goes on down there, what true, dirty, uncomfortable histories have been covered over.
Other books feel more like an old friend — they take you by the hand and lead you through their hometown, explaining what needs to be explained, trusting you’ll figure out the rest.
THE HIDDEN STAR (Cassava Republic Press, 210 pp., $17.95; ages 10 and up), the third and final novel by the South African novelist K. Sello Duiker (who died in 2005), immediately and refreshingly places itself in the second category. It has no interest in translating itself or its humanity for an outside gaze. It doesn’t bother italicizing non-English words or even telling us what they mean; we’ll figure it out, or look it up, or not. Instead, “The Hidden Star” launches us right into the story: 11-year-old Nolitye, a rock collector who lives with her mom outside the suburbs of Soweto in a dusty township called Phola, discovers a powerful stone that not only grants her wishes and makes her giggle, it also leads her on a magical quest to collect a series of enchanted items. Along the way, she is thrust into a vast supernatural struggle among entities that roam the late-night streets of Phola, some of whom have been snatching up children.
Nolitye gathers a crew around her, including her best friend, Bheki, and Four Eyes, who was initially a reluctant member of the local gang of bullies, the Spoilers. Amid the gradual gathering of supernatural mayhem, daily life in Phola trudges on: The kids go to school, deal with their families, navigate various class distinctions, hang out with street dogs (who have their own internal strife to deal with, in a delightful subplot) and stand up to the Spoilers, led by Rotten Nellie. This last bit weaves in nicely with the larger story, though it also relies on some unnecessary weight-based slapstick.
The magic reveals itself gradually, and it is deeply entwined with the vivid world Duiker has created. From the beginning, we find out that kids in Phola can understand and talk to the local street dogs. It’s simply a part of life (only certain drunken adults seem to have the same ability — a nuance I was happy to see never explained). Only at the very end do we end up in a whole other magical realm, but by the time we’ve gotten there and the fantastical creatures and talking animals start to show up in legion, we’re already so used to the slow build of imaginary elements that it feels as if this other world has been there all along, lurking, waiting.
“The Hidden Star” expands in concentric circles. The plot sometimes seems to amble, but not in an aimless way. While it has its own rhythm and cadence, it never stalls out or drags, just slides along toward its finale as the mystery unravels amid daily life in the townships. Here is the book as old friend, not cheesy tour guide, and so it shows us the old men on their stoops, the early morning exodus of workers to Soweto, the quiet, sometimes contentious way a neighborhood collectively mourns its lost children and holds tight to the ones it has left.
In one lovely passage, Nolitye reaches a spaza shop “just as the sun disappears below the horizon. The sky is awash with a deep red color…. A cloud of smoke hangs above Phola, but it is not thick enough to blot out the moon that is climbing up behind the shanties.” And in this tiny moment of balance between day and night, Duiker seems to paint the whole universe spinning on its axis around the churning events of his story.
Duiker has created a vibrant cityscape populated by living, breathing, multifaceted human beings who seem a world away from the faceless Hollywood stock characters we see so often in depictions of African poverty. Sure, magic ripples just below the surface of these moonlit streets, but first and foremost we learn about life in this neighborhood, the loves and losses and labors of its residents. It is neither idealized haven nor melodramatic hellscape, but something much more alive. Simply put, it’s a home.
The very element of magic itself is at stake in THE DOOR TO THE LOST (Delacorte, 305 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), by Jaleigh Johnson. In a world called Talhaven, magic is used somewhat like electricity, after having been imported by the Vorans, mysterious wizards from another dimension, via a wormhole that one day self-destructed. Only a dwindling supply of magic was left, along with a boat full of Voran children who have no memories of life before the Great Catastrophe. Talhaven collectively blames the children for all that went wrong. Magic, now a rare commodity, is labeled dangerous and bad, and the refugees barely scrape by doing magical favors in the Night Market and trying to avoid the Constables and the vigilante Red Watchers, as well as the zombified sufferers of a strange new disease called the Frenzy.
The refreshing heart of this fun, exciting story, though, is friendship. When we meet Rook and Drift, both refugees from Vora, they are already the best of friends. It’s a pleasure watching them hang on to that when an illicit transaction goes awry, and they try to piece together their shattered pasts and find a way back to a homeland they don’t remember.
Johnson, whose previous books include the World of Solace series, has written an imaginative and memorable tale, but there are stumbles along the way. Some details feel overly familiar, and there are a few clumsy reveals and reversals. The story initially presents itself as a complex, timely meditation on the struggles of a refugee trapped between two worlds, an adventure with a thoughtful, nuanced core. Toward the end, “The Door to the Lost” seems to discard the hard work it did building a complex, xenophobic society, giving way to a more simplified warning about the dangers of fighting oppression too fervently. As a result, we’re never really sure just what we’re up against until it’s too late to make sense of it as a palpable threat.
But the many well-rendered, imaginative and heartfelt scenes along the way make the journey worthwhile. At one point, Rook, whose magic power is the ability to open up doorways just by drawing them in chalk, creates a tiny entranceway to a music club late on a sleepless night. The performers unknowingly serenade our heroes to sleep: “The high, pure notes drifted into the room like a welcome guest. A moment later, the violin joined in, and the two musicians played the song together as if they had done so since birth. A lullaby, just as Rook had asked.” Elsewhere, Johnson describes a magical fox’s bristling and then coming around to trusting with such vivid, thoughtful prose, the character seems to saunter off the page, fully alive.