Category Archives: The Miracle of Crocodile Flats

The Miracle of Crocodile Flats

Jonathan Amid, Litnet

The vicissitudes of living in South Africa are fertile ground for novelists to excavate and examine particular aspects of our society. Replete with the hyperbole, exaggeration and embellishment, satire is one such form, a Janus-faced animal animated by the impulse to contort and distort, ever ready also to illuminate truth and understanding.

Contingently, The Miracle of Crocodile Flats by local author Jenny Hobbs hits the shelves marketed as “an affectionate satire”. With the sighting of a brown-skinned Virgin Mary in a small South African village as its starting point, Hobbs offers readers some cascading, character-driven impressions. It is a vision of ourselves in a post-apartheid moment, both lovely and laced with bite, casting its focus on two main areas: religion and race. The fault lines between these two focal points in the novel emerge slowly and organically after Hobbs observes the pathos, disillusionment and entrenched suffering of a small village. The people of Crocodile Flats are in dire need of something to lift their spirits – and a vision of pious purity and pure piety by a young girl is just the ticket.

A miracle is generally accepted, particularly in the religious sense of the word, to denote a wonder or marvel, a vision or sensation of that deemed impossible. The “miracle” here is the sighting of Ma-Jesu – the Virgin Mary, African, benevolent, smiling and smelling of peach blossom and vanilla cupcakes – by the fourteen-year-old Sweetness Moloi. Soon after the sighting, a multitude of attention-seeking, money-grubbing and self-serving characters from all over the world envelopes the poverty-stricken rural community of Crocodile Flats. Chief among these shady specimens are the entrepreneurial prophet Hallelujah of the Correct Baptised God Come Down in Africa Church. And is he not amusing!

It is one thing to peddle ready-made, hand-me-down stereotypes of small town life and to pass it off as “satire”, something else entirely to dig deeper, to draw from the well of the familiar to present a portrait of characters in motion, responding to their surroundings in ways that are true and exact. As such, Hobbs is adept at drawing out the more ridiculous, facile and hypocritical behaviour of the various “pilgrims”: she lands more than a few telling blows when examining the underbelly of formalised religion. Here the satire is superficially playful, but emphatic, forceful.

Additionally, Hobbs includes just about every type and manner of particularly South African identities here. It is through her expertly rendered, imminently poignant characterisation of the local inhabitants that the “affectionate satire” comes most strongly to the fore. Come the conclusion, the end result of the vision Sweetness has is largely predictable: readers will be well prepared for the resolutely exultant end section of the novel, in which every little loose end is tied up and gift-wrapped, and everyone gets their moment in the sun… While this well-written portrait is an unashamedly feel-good read, making satire “affectionate” is no mean feat, and The Miracle of Crocodile Flats delivers on its promise.

Betty Govinden, Sunday Independent

As you can guess, Jenny Hobbs’s The Miracle of Crocodile Flats is a riot of a tale – a comic, down-to-earth, light-hearted, yet serious look at SA oddities and foibles in particular, and at ideological and institutional anomalies and inconsistencies in general. Her new offering avoids some of the staples of SA writing. As she notes, “The many and diverse characters in the book are ordinary S Africans: no anguished lefties, no tortured cops, no irritating geeks, no earth mothers, no exiles yearning from afar, no bling divas, and only a brief mention of hijackers.”

Jenny de Klerk, The Star

This is a hoot of a book, warm, witty with a gentle chuckle of recognition and humour on just about every page. It’s a feel-good tale with an ending you only wish could be true. At first sight there is not much room for laughter in Crocodile Flats. It’s the town that everyone, including the government, forgot. Then Sweetness Moloi saw a vision on her way home from school… The news spread, the world erupted, the world descended, the world changed – and so did Crocodile Flats and all its wry funny characters. Again and again you stop to laugh as the contradictions and contrasts of this crazy, mixed-up, glorious country of ours are held up in a few well-chosen words… As the foreword says, “The rainbow nation was back in the world news, wearing a halo.”  I laughed my way through this book. It’s an absolute gem.

Michael Shafto, Port Elizabeth Express

This is a remarkable book from a remarkable writer. Jenny Hobbs is our Anne Tyler, though with a cutting edge somewhat more jagged, less forgiving. She’s our Dickens, too – think Pickwick Papers, its vast cast of characters… Hobbs, who with this offering has written six novels almost without putting a foot wrong, takes an actual event – an alleged sighting several years ago of the Virgin Mary in rural S Africa by a young black girl – and builds her tale around it. Tatty Crocodile Flats is populated by a poor rural community subject to all the ingredients that make S African dorps so unique. The village is coming apart at the seams. It is peopled by the poor, blacks and whites living by their wits… Novelist Hobbs manages somehow to orchestrate many disparate strands, smoothly moulding them into a satisfying melodious whole. The beautify of it is the way she serves it up – so utterly, unapologetically S’African.

Ruth Browne, Cape Times

A flat, thirsty plain, a worn old road and the fungi of huddled shacks: this is Jenny Hobbs’s Crocodile Flats, a town gone septic in its failing years. Traditional chieftains and barricaded Voortrekker families eye each other over contested land and the two thriving institutions are the church and the bottle store… Through the shebeens, shops and taxi ranks wind a succession of characters united in a despair that is communal and personal… Filtered through so many lives, the story takes on a Dickensian depth…  a speaking, breathing rural town full of real people. The theme, a community shaken to rediscover its soul, is joyfully ubiquitous… Proclaiming itself “an affectionate satire”, Crocodile Flats accretes like an elaborate shell around the secret warmth of a vision…  Perhaps S Africa needs stories like these that train us to realise what real reconciliation could look like… Hobbs’s deft hand with SA preoccupations and dialects makes this a good and satisfying read.