Received a copy of Hell Camp by Niki Smart through the First Reads Giveaway program in exchange for an honest review
"I was reckless to the point of stupidity. I mean, I climbed in cars with strangers, I climbed on the back of motorbikes with strangers...well basically, I climbed on strangers. I was drunk and I didn't care. I sought out constant adventure, anything out of the ordinary, anything to occupy my mind. Boredom was equivalent to death.Keep me stimulated, keep me busy, busy, busy, so I don't have to endure the silence or be alone...in my head...with my ruminating rancor."
With a mother ill-equipped to parent, partnered with a constant need for comfort while foreboding an early grim demise at the hands of throat-slitting black terrorists for her daughter; I believe the writing is on the wall that this inborn parental unit is not good for one's emotional state of mind. Her mother was a serpentine affair, a wooden roller coaster of emotions with peaks, valleys, sharp turns, excess speed,and sudden stops. The mother grew up in Germany during the tragedies of World War 2 and was subject to the world's great truths. Knowing how she was treated as a child lends itself to some compassion, but also disappointment that she didn't alter the generational cycle of abuse. Also living with an alcoholic, abusive, head banging stepfather, Niki has no place to go for safety. If the Caste System is in fact a thing, I would hope for Niki's sake that lucid time-traveling dreamscapes are not a prominent presence in her future because she must have done some evil things to deserve this punishment. The main problem I had with the parents were the psychological manipulation performed on Niki. When complete hate is close to a formality, they show a vulnerability, a love for their child that brings them back into the fold. Let the child hate you so they can get on with their lives as best as they can. What you see with Niki's mom is that she is a constant presence, predominately negative, and as much as Niki wants to shake her, she emotionally can't cut the tie that binds.
The author does not ask you for sympathy, to feel sorry for her or pity her with respect to everything that has happened throughout out her life. She subtly delivers tragic news as if she is simply saying to the reader, this is me at age 9, this is me at age 13, this is me at age 50, and everything in between. The method for her madness in her revealing the news makes her a very admirable person, but being so nonchalant about it may not result in the greatest of results when it comes to literary judgments and reviews. She is dependent on your reactions as a reader, don't expect her to cajole you one way or another, except when the focus shifts to a social commentary on the plight of blacks, woman, and children as well as the prevalence of criminal behaviour and HIV/AIDS in South Africa. This is where she doesn't sugarcoat anything her passion is clearly understood. When people read memoirs, especially with events as earth-shattering as the one's experienced by the author. People want to cry for the author and cheer her on along the way. The author clearly shows her understanding that every person has their own story whereby some people have more up's than they do down's.You get the feeling that she doesn't want to come across as a whiner, rather she would like to be understood as an individual with a personal story that must be told as a means to help others in a similar situation. The author's approach to life comes through the pages in the subtle yet powerful statement; "it is what it is". I tend to live by this ideal which has resulted in me being called unsympathetic or cold, but I feel like why get stressed and shorten your own life by bothering to control the uncontrollable. When life throws you a lemon you make lemonade or if you hate lemonade throw the f#&%$@g lemon back. It's a difficult thing to do but whatever helps you get through the difficult times needs to be done.
"It appeared that sex and love were two very different beasts. I could lose in love, but gain in sex. Love was guaranteed to hurt, but sex only occasionally hurt. I had sex for several reasons, and none of them were because I was suffering an overactive libido. I had sex to acquire things, to solidify my power, and, on an unconscious level, to punish myself."
Throughout Niki's life her dream was to be a worldwide pop star. From winning contests, getting awards, and receiving accolades as a child, her path was clearing for her and her global takeover. As a member of a variety of groups she was able to play the club circuit drinking like a fish and having indiscriminate sex like a jack rabbit. She traveled from township-to-township throughout South Africa where her accommodations included strange men hiding in closets. And as a hotel lounge act, where her career came to a head, and an intimate crowning came about nine months later putting a halt to her stardom. She is finally able to reach success as a solo artist when she decides to leave the precarious situation in South Africa for the good ol' US of A. This decision proves to be the start of her healing and for her there's no looking back.
"On closing my bank account in Johannesburg, the teller confided that roughly thirty people a day we're pulling their money out. Take the money and run. The South African government did not permit the removal of vast sums from the country, knowing full well that everyone was desperate to get their money out. I'd accumulated R20,000 in savings, so I padded the bottom of my suitcase with bank notes, smiled sweetly at the custom officials, and carried my boodle onto a plane. Easy Peasy!"
Upon further reflection from my own childhood I must admit that if given the allowance to take on the role of "woe is me" type of character there could be causes for resentment. My father, much Niki's mother is probably a great human, but he was a more absent than not as a father, and not a prime husband. Between alternating between day and night shifts he spent most of his free time with the boys, or as I later discovered, the girls. At the time that was my life, I didn't know any different, I didn't cry for attention from my father, I just accepted it for what it was. My mother, being the forever-present figure that she was would sit my brother and I in front of the television to watch some wholesome programming like Full House, Family Matters, and syndicated reruns of The Cosby Show. During this time I would often think why can't I have three dads? Or why can't my parents be black? As I got older and was able to control the remote I started watching The Simpsons and Married... With Children. Less than wholesome than I was used to, I began realizing that, at least my father doesn't strangle me saying "why you little...ahhhhh...ughhhh" or at least my parents didn't continually humiliate me like Peg&Al Bundy. What I am trying to get at is that life isn't always as good as you would like it to be, nor as bad as it possibly could be, it all about gaining that perspective.
If you know you have lived in a living hell, you must understand that a place called heaven certainly does exist. I am happy to read that the author was able to find her heaven on Earth.
*There are a lot of graphic details about pre and post Apartheid which some people may find difficult to read so keep that in mind.There is also an interesting story about Pulitzer Prize Winning Photojournalist Kevin Carter that stuck with me and I had to make mention.*
"I was an unfit mother, hell I was an unfit everything. As a student, I bunked school, then I dropped out of university. As a girlfriend I cheated on every boyfriend I ever had. As an employee, I was fired from numerous positions; BUT (big but here), I knew 100% that I was better equipped to care for Samantha than my mother was. There would be no Hell Camp for the Snausage-girl."