My Mother's Lovers


“Kick off your shoes, pour yourself a stiff drink and take your hat off to the elder statesman of southern African words--he’s done it again.” --Alexandra Fuller
“Vivid and powerful. Highly recommended.” --Library Journal (starred review)
The author of Serenity House and Kruger’s Alp (winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction) returns with a lyrical and taut novel about the past fifty years of white presence in South Africa, told through a son’s larger-than-life vision of his ...

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“Kick off your shoes, pour yourself a stiff drink and take your hat off to the elder statesman of southern African words--he’s done it again.” --Alexandra Fuller
“Vivid and powerful. Highly recommended.” --Library Journal (starred review)
The author of Serenity House and Kruger’s Alp (winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction) returns with a lyrical and taut novel about the past fifty years of white presence in South Africa, told through a son’s larger-than-life vision of his mother. In Kathleen Healey, acclaimed novelist Christopher Hope crafts a superbly authentic female character. Aviator, big game hunter, and a knitting devotee who once boxed three rounds with Ernest Hemingway, her multitude of lovers came from all over the world. When she fades with illness, her son must carry out her final wishes, and confront his own ability to love. Bitingly funny and inventive, My Mother’s Lovers is as fierce and radiant as our romance with Africa.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The sprawling ninth novel from South African Hope (Kruger's Alp, etc.) pursues a son's adoring, adversarial relationship with his legendary mother and with South Africa as it changes over his lifetime. Alexander, born in 1944, returns to postapartheid Johannesburg to distribute the effects of his mother, Kathleen Healey, formerly a devil-may-care Karen Blixen-era big-game hunter. Alexander isn't sure who among the motley "uncles" who floated through his mother's life is his father, and readers see a lot of Kathleen's laissez-faire parenting as young Alexander, in retrospect, is subject to it. As the novel flashes back and forth in time, there's also Koosie, a mixed-race orphan boy taken under Kathleen's wing who later gets swept up in the black power movement. (Alexander becomes an itinerant air-conditioner salesman.) Kathleen, dying of cancer, makes a last-ditch attempt to marry a much younger Cuban refugee of Castro's regime and help spirit him to safety. Later, we meet Cindy, a "Coloured" woman now playing the rich "Jo'burg dolly-bird," who worked with Kathleen at a shelter for handicapped kids and is overwhelmed by Kathleen's personality. Hope allows Kathleen to come through clearly, and individual episodes are suffused with Alexander's lifelong ambivalence. His portraits are skillful, but the novel doesn't fully jell. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Set primarily in South Africa from the late 1800s to the present, this engrossing novel features an eclectic cast of characters. At its center is Kathleen Healey, a pipe-smoking aviator, hunter, knitter, and all-'round adventurer who leaves lovers in her wake. Kathleen travels the continent of Africa, going wherever and whenever she chooses, and she has unlimited tales to share of her incredible experiences. While tracing the Healey family history, the novel also explores the history of South Africa, especially its conquests and civil wars. Significantly, in a land where race is of prime importance, Kathleen is color blind. When Kathleen dies, her only son, Alexander, returns to Johannesburg after an absence of many years. As he reconciles conflicted feelings toward his mother and his mother country, Alexander renews old relationships, makes new friends, and grapples with love, belonging, identity, and race. Hope, whose numerous novels include Kruger's Alp, winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction, offers vivid and powerful descriptions of modern-day South Africa. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Sarah Conrad Weisman

Kirkus Reviews
Another scathingly funny look at the bizarre social and psychological landscape of his native South Africa from Whitbread winner and Booker short-listee Hope (Darkest England, 1996, etc.). The central, towering figure is Kathleen Healey, a pilot and big-game hunter born shortly after World War I who swaggers across Africa with the panache of the colonizing generation that took the continent as its personal playground. She won't even tell her son Alex, the novel's narrator, who his father is. Maintaining idiosyncratic friendships with everyone from an Afrikaner secret policeman to the Rain Queen of the Lebalola people, Kathleen is equally out of place in the race-obsessed South Africa run by religious bigots and in the post-apartheid nation racked by crime and AIDS. She's magnificently clueless about everything except her own pleasures and the people she chooses to love, though her swashbuckling resume of her beloved Johannesburg's past ("We don't have a history, really . . . Just a police record.") nails the wide-open frontier town where her father made his fortune laying dynamite in gold mines. Quiet, uneasy Alex takes a less romantic view of their homeland, seeing it as a place of cruelty and malevolent fantasy, where white people once imagined themselves the lords of the universe and black politicians now play the same corrupt power games as those they displaced. He just wants to get away from it all, selling air-conditioning units all over the Far East, until his mother's death brings him home for a reckoning with her and the "lovers" (not all of them male sexual partners) to whom she's made a few pointed bequests for Alex to execute. Hope paints a broad canvas teeming with vigorouscharacters; his political commentary is fresh, biting and deeply cynical. The moving final pages show Alex still in thrall to the magic of Africa and his mother, decry their lies and failures though he may. Intelligent, tough-minded and surprisingly tender: a portrait of Africa that both convinces and provokes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802143730
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/5/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Read an Excerpt

My Mother's Lovers



Copyright © 2006 Christopher Hope
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1850-9

Chapter One

I once asked my mother who my father had been.

We were shooting buffalo and, for the only time in her life, I reckon, she shot to miss. She turned her huge blue eyes on me - the rifle kicked hard, the .375 Mag H & H delivers close on forty pounds right into the shoulder - and said in her quietest voice: 'I haven't the faintest idea.' Then she handed the gun to me, her choice Holland & Holland, first made in 1912, always popular with big game hunters. She said: 'Your turn next. Remember, these beasts are tricky. Especially if you don't put him down. Captain Cornwallis Harris liked to remark that the buffalo will tramp you, kneel on you, sandpaper off your skin with his rough tongue, and then come back for another go.'

I didn't ask again.

Mind you, she told me, without my asking, that I'd been born under a thorn tree on the African plains while she had been 'with' (travelling with, sleeping with?) a white witchdoctor called Harry Huntley. He had taken her - heavily pregnant - into 'the bundu', the distant lonely veld, left her camped beneath a thorn tree and, armed only with a knife and a bag of salt, he'd gone off into the wilderness to hunt for wild bees and small game.

I always wondered:why small game, why not bloody big game? I had a very low opinion of Huntley, he seemed to me a wanker from the start.

Anyway, so her story went, it was under the thorn tree, alone, that she had given birth to her son, and he - I - might have died had her itinerant white witchdoctor not returned, and severed the umbilical cord with a whisk - get this - of his hunting knife.

My bundu birth sounded unreliable, but the bozo with the salt bag was all too typical. Africa has been chock with them. Soul-salvers, ravers, mystics, mendicants, dreamers from damp northern reaches of Europe in search of spiritual union with A-fri-ca!

Harry Huntley came directly from Leicester, and took to Africa rather as some men take to drink. He liked to go hunting elephant in Bechuanaland and his Tswana hunters apparently adored him: he went around barefoot, and lived rough in the veld on honey, roots and berries; he milked cobras which he kept in a sack; he took his water from the muddiest waterholes, and he slept at night among the roots of giant baobabs. It had been a career of feverish self-indulgence.

But, as I said, there has always been a lot of it about. You can trace a line from Harry Huntley back to David Livingstone. These guys all said the same things: they were in Africa to build railways, save souls, speed trade and/or end slavery. Popular pastimes, and useful dodges. Think of the funny hats, the odd habits, the ridiculous outfits, the bizarre wandering about in a fog of ignorance, all the while declaring they were lighting up the fucking place ... Some wanted to be white gods; others went native and became sangomas, or rainmakers, or born-again bushmen, or praise-singers; others set about saving souls, along with black babies, lepers and the white rhino. But all of them, the slavers, the seers, the saints, the posturing white colonials had one thing in common: they took out a patent on 'their' Africa and flogged it as the one true original.

So I don't know why Huntley turned up in Africa, and I could not explain why someone like my mother should fall for a half-naked Limey from Leicester, wearing a leather skirt. She spoke English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Swahili. She could fly, ride, shoot - and knit. She could also box a bit: she went three rounds with Hemingway in a Mombasa gym, though as she'd say, 'He was pretty far gone by then.'

And yet she wandered into the bush with a crazy white witchdoctor.

But was Huntley my dad?

I never got the chance to ask him. Harry Huntley decided one day to swim the Orange River. Perhaps his old European education got the better of him, and he was copying Byron when he dived into the Hellespont. Perhaps he just felt like a dip. Anyway, halfway across the river Huntley got into difficulties, and was drowned.

Which of course meant even more stories grew up around the man: that he could run down lions, that he could talk to snakes, that he was a maker of rain and a sniffer-out of witches. Over the years, any number of devotees came to talk to my mother about Harry Huntley. Hollywood took movie options on one or other of the many books about him, books with titles like The Bee Master, The Man Who Loved Lions, quasi-religious tracts found on bookstore shelves marked 'African occult', and which bore about as much relation to the real Africa as soft porn did to real sex.

As to matters of paternity, then, I hadn't a clue, and my mother wasn't saying. I knew that during the last war she had risked three attempts at marriage but each time the pilot she'd been planning to marry was killed in action. She never made much of it except to say that the life expectancy of SAAF fighter pilots in the Western Desert was counted in weeks. Any of these men might have been my father. I had no way of knowing.

My birth certificate said I was born in Johannesburg, in 1944. Then again, my mother once confided that my 'paperwork' had taken 'a lot of getting hold of'. My baptismal certificate told me I had been christened in the Church of St Mary, Orange Grove, in 1945 (why the gap of a year I cannot imagine) and I was named Alexander Ignatius Healey. I was given my mother's surname, suggesting that I was born out of wedlock, though none of it proves that Huntley was my father.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, I have always felt like a foundling, though my mother insisted that wasn't so, and that she was my legal, biological mother.

'But, my dear boy - don't I look like your ma?'

Nice one, that. As if by failing to spot the lineaments of motherhood, I had somehow failed the test of filial loyalty. Of course she didn't look like my mother. Not by a bloody mile. Ours was more of a compromise: she was my mother because she said so, and I was her son because I owned up to it, though not without misgivings.

Then there was my name.

'If you'd been a girl I'd have called you Alexandra, after the township. Alexander was as close as I could get ... in your case.'

'What do mean ... in my case?'

'Alex is a good name, don't you reckon? I learnt to box in Alex.'

Alexandra and Sophiatown, as it happened, in the 1930s. Her sparring partners were black guys hungry to punch their way to fame and freedom.

There it was. The features of her life made up a map of somewhere she said was Africa. But to me it was more mirror than map. I had to take on trust that just behind her, or over her shoulder, I might catch sight of the place itself. But it never really happened. Whenever I looked, the mirror was filled with her face.

And what a face ...

When I was a boy, she bought me comics on Saturday mornings, and I am ashamed to say I repaid her by seeing in her a faint but alarming resemblance, particularly in right profile, to Dan Dare, the swaggering desperado with the mighty jaw. Although Dan Dare had lots of sharp black stubble on his chin and my mother did not; at least, I don't think she did (though I have to say that sometimes she seemed to). Thus for me she summed up, though she did not mean to and he did, a kind of manliness.

Yet she was also entirely feminine, with a weakness for yellow cardigans and large leather handbags, and she loved turbans, except when she was on safari. No one, in my eyes, ever smoked a pipe so prettily, or clipped, lit and orchestrated a big cigar with such able-handed elegance. I think my ambivalent view of her was no more than a reflection of her astonishing range: she could be grave and tender, savage and subtle.

Our different ways of seeing each other went on widening all our lives and they showed in the distances between the places where we lived. I don't mean geographically, I mean temperamentally. We simply had very different ideas of home. My mother had always taken the grandest view of Africa; it was for her a shooting gallery, an endless sky, and she saw the European searchers, the Huntleys, Livingstones and others, as great presences, even great Africans. To me, people like Huntley, and the others who passed through our lives, were not mystics or miracle-workers, they were distinctly dodgy. I would not have bought a copper bangle or a slightly foxed bible from any of them.

I saw them as would-be actors constantly auditioning for parts in the great romance. Pallid players in search of themselves who only made sense when you thought of them as characters on a continent of their own scripting. Not Africa the place, not the groaning landmass where so many have been so betrayed by men in tunics, djellabas, and suits, who claimed to love the place, only to unleash the usual annihilation, but Africa the production, Africa the movie, Africa the road show.

My mother called this view banal and unworthy.

And what about her? She certainly had something of the theatricality. Except she didn't dress up and invent a new character; she played herself.

There was also her ambition. She was never particularly South African (that would have been far too modest), she never exhibited that limiting self-regard that marks South Africans, black and white, and leads them to see nothing else as real, and no one else as interesting. My mother wasn't to be confined to one bit of Africa, the lower leg of the continent; she took all of it as her birthright and loved it with a passion that was free of that yearning to merge that leads some people to tears (though the Huntley episode shows she was susceptible to moments of 'Jock of the Bushveld' hokum).

But, in the main, she was sound.

Take, for example, her attitude to wildlife, always a good way of telling a real African from a transplanted mythomaniac. Faced by the no longer teeming but still plentiful big game, her response was straightforward: she picked up her rifle, and shot something. Her admiration for Karen Blixen, whom she sometimes visited when she was a girl, had nothing to do with Blixen's love affair with the Kenyan highlands; it was more simply based:

'My God, could that woman kill lions!'

I went hunting with her only a few times. She was a good and patient teacher and I learnt a lot from her but it never really took. I was simply not gifted that way. She flew us to Livingstone in Northern Rhodesia, and then we drove into the bush. Buffalo don't hear or see too well but their sense of smell is exceptionally keen, and you stand more of a chance of getting in closer when you track a single animal rather than a herd. We stalked this single old bull most of the day, keeping well downwind. He had huge horns and fine bosses that made him look like some old-bufferish judge.

She was not amused by the comparison.

She was in her usual khaki shorts, and veldskoen, no socks, and a few rounds in the top pocket of her shirt. She talked as we walked.

'In the old days when we hunted there were lots of buffs, and you'd stalk them at night because they like to graze then, it being cooler. But one can't see in the dark. Problem! So what we did was to tie a bit of white cloth to the barrel of the Mauser - we used 9.3 by 57s at the time - and the white cloth was a night-sight and direction finder. In daylight, we hunted as a group, say five or six guns; we'd stalk the herd from different directions and when the guns opened up, the danger was always that the herd might stampede and mow you down, so you had to blast away, hope to down the lead buff heading for you, then jump on his body and use it as a kind of shooting platform.'

Though I liked her warmth and her knowledge, the business did nothing for me. I understood the danger well enough. Buffalo are very strong, and they will circle back on their tracks to attack you; they can turn amazingly fast, and they will kill you as soon as look at you.

We got to within about fifty yards of the bull and she was breathing lightly as she sighted and said: 'OK, you go. Remember, you want to do as much damage as you can with your first shot. Never go for the head or the neck. Go for the boiler room, and if you're lucky you'll hit bone. It is very, very rare that you'll bring the buff down with a single shot so prepare the second; and remember he might run, then we'll have to follow. That's tricky.'

I was lucky: my shot broke his spine and put him down. She was pleased: 'One shot hardly ever does,' she said, again.

Afterwards we made stew from the bull's kneecaps - long cooking in an iron pot over the fire - and she talked of shooting and I talked of air temperature. That's what the bush did to me, it made me itch, it made me hot, it made me bored.

'There are no bloody fans in the veld,' she said.

'No, Ma. But there are methods.'

I told her about evaporative cooling. 'You soak a sheet and hang it in the breeze. Natural air-conditioning.'

'Where on earth did you get that from?'

'I read it in a book.'

'Oh, dear me,' she said. 'Air? I really wish you wouldn't.'

I liked reading about how you altered it and treated it. How you washed it clean, controlled impurities, moved it inside an enclosed space, governed its temperature. Most of all I liked the effect of my interest - so minor, so neutral, so innocent, so light - on people in a country where beer and blood and bullets flowed so easily. My interest in air sent people up the wall. Not only did it seem perverse, it was probably downright seditious.

In the old Cassell encyclopaedia my mother kept, I found the story of John Gorrie, and he became a kind of saint to me. Gorrie was a doctor and a scientist, born in Carolina: that in itself was magic - how far away was Carolina! As far away as I cared to dream. And if that were not enough, it turned out there were two Carolinas: North and South.

Gorrie trained as a doctor in New York. Then he moved to the Gulf coast and went to work in a town called Apalachicola, in Florida. I had never heard a name so beautiful, I said it over and over. But when I mentioned it at school people were very unimpressed, their faces darkened, they frowned - even quite intelligent people - and they said, 'What's that?' On hearing it was a town in Florida, in America, they often became angry; or even sarcastic. 'Oh, is it really. Florida, hey?'

My mother was the same: 'Apala- what? Honestly, Alexander, if I'd known what use you'd make of those old books, I'd have given them away to a jumble sale.'

The uses to which I put her books and which she so deplored had nothing much to do with information in the strictest sense of the word: for me reading was much more vital, more physical, more satisfying; it showed me how to escape. It got me out of the house, and out of the country, it got me as far as Apalachicola. How it rings - that name! - still ...

In Apalachicola, John Gorrie treated malaria and yellow fever, though at the time no one could tell the difference; except that malaria began with terrible chills, shakes, and fever; it might come back again and again and sometimes it could kill. Far more mysterious was yellow fever, which only came once, and left you dead or alive. Yellow fever also began with the shivers and high temperatures, raging thirst, violent headaches, then awful pain in your back and legs. The next day you turned yellow as an old autumn leaf. Worst was the black vomit, a falling temperature and onset of the final coma.

Since it was widely believed that the terrible disease came from 'bad air' - mal-aria - desperate defences were thrown up to ward off the noxious effluvium: vinegar in your handkerchief, garlic on your shoes, sheets soaked in camphor, burning sulphur or gunpowder, and even firing cannons.

John Gorrie tried ice. He hung basins of the stuff over the patient's bed: cool air is heavier than hot air. It soothed, quite literally, the fevers of his patients. But ice was hard to come by - it had to be shipped in by boat from the lakes in the north - and that was when Gorrie had a revolutionary idea: he decided to build a machine to make ice.

In 1851, he applied for a patent on an ice-making machine. I knew the lines of his short application by heart and I could make my mother bellow simply by saying them out loud:

'"If the air were highly compressed, it would heat up by the energy of compression. If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperatures could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box."'

Power for the compressor, Gorrie reckoned, could come from steam, water, wind-sails or, perhaps, horses. He got the temperature to drop by forcing gas to expand fast. Squeeze a gas and it heats up; relax the pressure and the gas expands, and as it does so it absorbs heat, and chills the space around it. Dr Gorrie's basic principle is the one most often used in refrigeration today; namely, cooling caused by the rapid expansion of gases.


Excerpted from My Mother's Lovers by CHRISTOPHER HOPE Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Hope. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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