The name Yotam Ottolenghi is well known to lovers of international cookbooks. He is chef-patron of the Ottolenghi delis and NOPI restaurant in London and has published five bestselling cookbooks: Plenty, Plenty More, Ottolenghi The Cookbook, Jerusalem, and Nopi: The Cookbook.

Fans old and new will find much to delight in his latest book, Sweet, which he co-authored with Helen Goh.

Goh was born in Malaysia but started her cooking career in Australia, where she had migrated with her family as a girl. After 7 years as head pastry chef at Donovans, a landmark Melbourne restaurant, she moved to London and soon joined Ottolenghi. She has worked closely with Yotam as the lead product developer for the past ten years. Helen draws widely on Asian, Western and Middle Eastern influences in her cooking – and of course, on her love of sweets.

Not holding back from the truth, they confess in the book’s Preface:

“There’s so much sugar in this book that we thought about calling it, well, Sugar. Here we are celebrating the sweet things in life. We say this not to be irreverent or flippant – we are completely aware of the current concerns about the adverse effects of sugar – but we want to make it clear that this is a recipe book full of over 110 sweet things…..there is nothing wrong with treats, as long as we know what they are and enjoy them as such.”
“The Ottolenghi way has always been about abundance, inclusion and celebration. It’s the way we’ve always cooked and it’s the way we’ve always baked. It’s the way we’ve always eaten and the way we’ve always lived.”

As a person that looks at the desserts menu first when visiting a restaurant for the first time, I can only say, hear hear!

Sweet is divided into seven sections and in listing them I have included with each a couple that have caught my sweet tooth’s eye:

Cookies and biscuits – Almond, pistachio and sour cherry wafers; Gevulde Speculaas.

Mini-cakes – Tahini and halva brownies; Blackberry and star anise friands.

Cakes – Parsnip and pecan cake with aniseed and orange; Grappa fruit cake

Cheesecakes – Fig, orange and marscapone cheesecake; Chocolate banana ripple cheesecake

Tarts and pies – Walnuts and black treacle tarts with crystalized sage; Schiacciata with grapes and fennel seeds

Desserts – Ricotta crepes with figs, honey and pistachio; Sticky fig pudding

Confectionery – Pecan and Prosecco truffles; Almond and aniseed nougat

Sweet’s recipes are mostly very doable and finding the ingredients locally should not be a problem. Their diversity of flavours and textures make for divine indulgence.

I suggest you indulge your sweet tooth to your heart’s content and then go for some intense sessions at your local gym…





I recently said to my wife that with all the books that I have reviewed for the Cape Times this year, I was still hoping to read one that “blew my mind”, then “The Choice” landed on my desk. It is my personal choice as my Read of 2017, what a book!

Here’s my review of it:

In 1944, when she was sixteen, Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz, where she was made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. Over the coming months, her courage helped her sister to survive and led to her won rescue during a death march. When their camp was finally liberated, Edith was pulled from a pile of bodies, barely alive.

Today, Hungarian-born Clinical psychologist, Dr. Edith Eger maintains a busy clinical practice in La Jolla, California, holds a faculty appointment at the University of California—San Diego, and also serves as a consultant for the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy in resiliency training and the treatment of PTSD. She regularly gives lectures around the country and abroad.

In her memoir, The Choice, she draws on her experience of the Holocaust and the remarkable stories of those she has helped ever since, she shows how true freedom becomes possible once we confront our suffering.

There have been many excellent Holocaust memoirs and on that criterion alone, The Choice would easily stand up there with the best. But there is so much more to this particular memoir.

For decades since their liberation, many survivors were emotionally unable to share their stories. Dr Eger has been able to go a considerable distance further than just sharing her Holocaust story, she has used her experiences and story to help others, with the aim of “helping each of us escape the prisons of our own minds.”

The Auschwitz part of her story is a harrowing, emotional, uplifting account of the trauma she endured during and after the war. There were passages in the narrative with such emotional impact that I had to pause before being able to continue reading.

The choices Eger made that contributed to her ultimate survival are many. “The more choices you have the more doors that are open for you.”

Just one example: When she was made to dance for Josef Mengele, she discovered a piece of wisdom that she has never forgotten:

“I will never know what miracle of grace allows me this insight. It will save my life many times, even after the horror is over. I can see that Dr Mengele, the seasoned killer who just this morning murdered my mother, is more pitiful than me. I am free in my mind, which he can never be. He will always have to live with what he has done. He is more prisoner than I am. As I close my routine with a final, graceful split. I pray, but it isn’t myself I pray for. I pray for him. I pray for his sake, that he won’t have the need to kill me.”

After liberation, she understands that there will be doctors to help the survivors repair their physical health. But no one will explain the psychological dimension of recovery. It will be many years before she begins to understand that.

In 1966, Eger is handed a copy of Viktor Frankl’s “’Man’s Search for Meaning” and one particular passage has a profound impact on her:

“Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Every moment is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how to respond. And finally I begin to understand that too have a choice. This realization will change my life.

But Eger’s post-war interaction with the subject of the Holocaust is extraordinary. In particular, the chapters, Then Hitler Won and Leave a Stone, deal with such immense issues and personal choices, they literally stopped me in my tracks and gasping for breath and I had to stop reading and reflect on things about which I had strong personal convictions, before being able to continue reading.   .

“If we are stuck in the past, we are living in a prison of our own making. Freedom is about choice, about choosing compassion, humor, optimism, intuition, curiosity, and self-expression. And to be free is to live in the present”.

An interviewer noted that she had been able to overcome her past. She said that she hadn’t but she that she had learned to come to terms with it.

The second part of The Choice features stories of Dr Eger’s patients’ transformations through therapy. These too make for engrossing reading and it is fascinating to see how she draws on the knowledge gained through her own experiences, to benefit her patients.

In her own words: “I began to formulate a new relationship with my own trauma. It wasn’t something to silence, suppress, avoid, negate. It was a well I could draw on, a deep source of understanding and intuition about my patients, their pain, and the path to healing.”

“If I understand the whole of my life, it is that sometimes the worst moments in our lives, the moments that set us spinning with ugly desires, that threaten to engulf us with the sheer impossibility of the pain we must endure, are in fact the moments that bring us to understand our worth. It is as if we become aware of ourselves as a bridge between all that has been and all that will be. We become aware of all we have received and what we can choose – or choose not – to perpetuate. Our painful experiences aren’t a liability, they are a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.”

As psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes in his Foreword to The Choice: “Her book is a universal message of hope and possibility to all who are trying to free themselves from pain and suffering. Whether imprisoned by bad marriages, destructive families, or jobs they hate, or imprisoned within the barbed wire of self-limiting beliefs that trap them in their own minds, readers will learn from this book that they can choose to embrace joy and freedom regardless of their circumstances.”

The Choice is a tour de force of non-fiction writing, an important book whose content should in some way or another resonate with everyone who reads it. It is a book that demands to be read more than once.




The narrative is superbly and sensitively observed and crafted. It vividly captures the feel of the turbulent days in which it is set. With the focus on family drama within a difficult social setting, detailing their everyday strugglesAchmat Dangor is an award-winning poet and novelist whose titles include Kafka’s Curse (1997) and the 2004 Booker shortlisted title Bitter Fruit. He is a former Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

His fifth novel is Dikeledi, a complex and moving tale about ordinary life during the height of the Apartheid era. The story it tells follows the lives of a family and particularly the women of various generations, who are named Dikeledi, one is immediately drawn into the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.

There are many novels in which the story line is a bit thin, but the standard of the writing makes up for it in some measure. In Dangor’s book, the writing is top notch and the narrative is brim full of incident.

The South African literary scene of today has many works both of fiction and non-fiction in which life under apartheid are key features. In Dikeledi this reality is cleverly placed in the experience of the Tau family. The effect of apartheid on much of their daily lives is interspersed among the drama of the family’s relationships and their individual struggles for identity.

Some readers might find the time-frame and geographical toing and froing between the various Dikeledis and a bit of editorial license here and there by the author a bit confusing. The story is so jam-packed with detail that at times it curbs the flow somewhat.

But these reservation aside, Dikeledi’s central threads are strong, thought-provoking and pertinent and its evocation of an era past makes for a really good read.








Ishay Govender-Ypma is a journalist, writer and cook based in Cape Town. She grew up on the ambrosial, sometimes hellfire curries of KwaZulu-Natal and quickly embraced spiced dishes of all kinds.

Her new book, CURRY – Stories & Recipes across South Africa, explores the fascinating story of South African curry. In it Ishay features almost 90 recipes from 60 cooks and food experts across the nation.

Ishay avers that “the Durban curries of her childhood, though a proud and prominent part of South African food culture, are not the defining curries of this land.” She didn’t take the easy way out in seeking recipes for inclusion in this book, instead she and her husband took to the road, travelling across the breadth of nine provinces. On the trip, both the dish and the heart of our people revealed itself to her.

“It became increasingly clear that a recipe shared without the context of a person’s life would be lost on me, the reader and the interviewee. While there are a handful of well-recognised chefs here, the majority are home cooks who were elected and suggested to me by their communities.”

CURRY is not an ordinary cookbook. For a start, Ishay’s Introduction is a marvellous and important discourse on the socio-political South African context of the history of curry and its communities. Even if you are not going to tackle any of the recipes, it will add some depth the next time you eat a curry locally. And with each provider of recipes, there is a personal back-story, adding authenticity and a setting to the dishes they share with the reader.

A plus, not common to all cookbooks, is that all the ingredients for the recipes should be readily available at your local supermarket.

Is Durban curry the real thing for you? Or maybe it’s the Cape Malay curry that gets your taste buds going? If that’s the limit of your local curry experience, you are in for a treat…

As Ishay says: “And I learned that profiling a South African curry as a single entity is a futile task. It’s as complex and interesting as the many people who make up our land”

So delve into CURRY’S   regional nuances of the delicious diversity that is South African curry – I’m sure that you will agree that in more ways than one, variety is the spice of life.




Many people may be unaware of the threats that endanger the sources of the food they eat. Some key factors threatening food supply are the effects of climate change and the destruction of natural habit and the fact that many animals face extinction

Some blissfully consume without giving any thought as to where the food they eat comes from and whether or not there is a limitless supply of it. Globally, the impact of an ever-increasing consumer demand for cheap meat is devastating.

Philip Lymbery’s new book, Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, is an eye-opening and frightening examination of the impact of industrial farming on the environment. In it Lymbery highlights iconic species and asks what would happen to them if we don’t change some of the ways we farm.

Lymbery is chief executive of leading international farm animal welfare organisation, Compassion in World Farming and a Visiting Professor at the University of Windsor.

He has played a leading role in many animal welfare reforms, including Europe-wide bans on veal crates for calves and barren battery cages for laying hens.

Described as one of the food industry’s most influential people, he has led Compassion’s engagement work with over 700 food companies worldwide, leading to real improvements in the lives of over three quarters of a billion farm animals every year.

Lymbery’s book, Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat was one of the Times Writers’ Books of the Year and was cited by the Mail on Sunday as a compelling game-changer. It surveyed the effects of industrial livestock production and industrial fish farming around the world

He believes it completely wrong that livestock need to be factory-farmed in sheds and fed one third of the world’s grain so that they grow as big and fast as possible. “There’s already enough food for everybody,” he maintains, as more than half the world’s food rots, is dumped in landfill, or feeds ‘imprisoned’ animals.

We are wrongly led to accept that squeezing animals into factory farms and cultivating crops in vast, chemical-soaked prairies is a necessary evil and an efficient means of providing for an ever expanding global population, while leaving land free for wildlife

If anything can provide an alarming wake-up call, reading Philip Lymbery’s Dead Zone will certainly be able to do the trick.

He takes us to the Gulf of Mexico where we discover what a Dead Zone is: “about 15 miles out, I was looking at something that resembled a construction site. All around me were oil rigs. It was blistering hot and the sea was eerily quiet. I’d heard a lot about this place in the media: somewhere out to sea where nothing lives. An expanse of water so polluted that nearly all the oxygen is gone. They exist all over the world, but the Gulf of Mexico one is the worst. As a dead zone spreads, some bottom-dwelling fish are forced to the surface, where they are vulnerable to predators; and the rest just die.” As a bottom-fish, shrimp take a particularly heavy hit.

In the book, we encounter the Elephant, neither the African nor the Asian, but the lesser-known Sumatran Elephant (which like the Indian, is a subspecies of the Asian) ; the Barn Owl whose numbers like other farm birds in Europe have dwindled dramatically; the majestic American Bison (also known as the American Buffalo); the Red Junglefowl, the primary progenitor of the domestic chicken; The White Stork, one of Poland’s best-loved wildlife treasures; The Water vole,  Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal; the Peregrine is a bird that is a fearless hunter that catches its prey on the wing. The island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel is a prime site for seeing them; It is also the site of an amazing experiment: the very first reintroduction of a Bumblebee, which were officially declared extinct in Great Britain in 2000; the iconic Jaguar is a big cat and the largest feline species in the Americas; Penguins from Robben Island in Cape Town; the Marine Iguana also known as the Galapagos Marine Iguana and lastly, the Nightingale, the numbers of which have declined by 43%.on Great Britain.

Be warned, the sections of Dead Zone where Lymbery discusses ‘industrial farming’ are “not for sensitive readers”. The topic is depressing and makes for jaw-dropping, harrowing, horrific reading. I hope that we don’t practice the extremes of industrial farming in South Africa.

The book includes this powerful appeal from Lymbery: “Helping to revive a living countryside can be as easy as choosing to eat less and better meat, milk and eggs from pasture-fed free-range or organic animals. Through our food choices three times a day, we can support the best animal welfare and bring landscapes to life.”

Dead Zone is well conceived and a work whose subject matter is of significance to everyone on this planet. Although much of the book is necessarily ‘quite serious stuff’, I found the opportunity to learn about creatures less familiar particularly rewarding.

Philip Lymbery has superbly manged to balance imparting much that is informative, with engaging personal and charming anecdotes. This excellent book provides for a read that is enjoyable, informative and important at the same time.






Normally a book written by a paleoanthropologist wouldn’t sound like a gripping read.

But Lee Berger’s new book, Almost Human, is as exciting as any work by a master writer of thrillers. And Part of Berger’s skills are his ability to write about his discipline in language approachable to the layman.

I am sure he is familiar with these lyrics from an old children’s song, Dem Bones:

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Now shake dem skeleton bones! The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, Now shake dem skeleton bones!

On the morning of 15 August 2008, Berger, his young son Matt and Job Kibii from Kenya were surveying a new fossil site in the world famous Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg. It was a typical winter’s morning, with nothing to suggest that a discovery they made would be life-changing.

Matt’s son cried out: “Dad, I found a fossil!” Berger’s eyes focused on the rock, a bone stuck out of it, he recognised it instantly as a clavicle. He turned the rock over, there was a hominin canine tooth and part of the jaw.

“Matt said I cursed. I don’t remember. Whatever I said or did, I knew for sure that both his life and mine were about to change forever.”

This happenstance discovery set off a chain of exploration, scientific research and culminated in the announcement of Homo naledi, an extinct species of hominin, which anthropologists have assigned to the genus Homo.

In 2017, however, the fossils were dated to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, long after much larger-brained and more modern-looking hominins had appeared. The research team therefore believes that Homo naledi is not a direct ancestor of modern humans, although it is probably an offshoot within the genus Homo.

The process of discovery by Lee Berger and his team is an exciting, often moving, tale of persistence, bravery, belief, and scientific research.

The most emotionally engaging parts of Almost Human are those where scientists were recruited to conduct the underground exploration and recovery of bones from underground caves. These individuals not only had to have the right qualifications and experience, but they also had to be slimly built to squeeze through the extremely narrow approaches to the area where the bones were. These intrepid women were dubbed Underground Astronauts, and their endeavours are every bit as pioneering and courageous as their airborne contemporaries.

“21 days after setting foot at Rising Star, this team of scientists, students, and volunteers had accomplished something remarkable. Together we had recovered more than 1.300 individually numbered fossil hominin remains, an unprecedented haul by any standard, far exceeding the number discovered at any single site in Africa.”

If you have done the Adventure Tour at the Cango Caves and found parts of the experience adrenalin-pumpingly frightening, fasten your safety-belts…..

This is really gripping stuff and many a reader will be forgiven for shedding a tear of joy and relief when the Underground Astronauts surface after their first journey underground, I know I did.

One of the major achievements of the book is the easy readability of Berger’s writing. What could easily have been a difficult journey through paleoanthropological terminology is avoided by Berger wearing one of his professorial hats, Public Understanding of Science. As a result Almost Human, although often quite technical, is never a difficult read.

The origin of humankind is a fascinating study and bound to result in differences of opinion and even controversy. The work of paleoanthropologists like Berger is ongoing and what an intriguing prospect is the anticipation of what might yet be discovered

“Archaeologists have assumed that all the people who took these great steps in human development were direct ancestors of modern Homo sapiens – that human evolution happened in a single straight line. But how do we know?”

Berger says that we are only at the beginning stages of learning about this remarkable species. New questions need to be asked and old assumptions questioned. So much of Africa lies almost entirely unexplored.

And like many good ‘thrillers’, Almost Human ends with a climactic sentence but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

I read the book at one sitting and finished it hungry for more. It is an incredibly rewarding read.

Lee Berger is Research Professor in Human Origins and the Public Understanding of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. He is the author of more than 200 scholarly and popular works. His research has been featured three times on the cover of Science and has been named among the top 100 science stories of the year by Time, Scientific American and Discover magazine on numerous occasions. Berger has appeared on many television documentaries. He is best known for his discovery of Australopithecus sediba and more recently Homo naledi.






Tony Jackman should need little introduction to Cape Town readers. He is a journalist, columnist, playwright and occasional restaurateur who writes with knowledge, wit, irreverence and an abiding love and respect for family friends and humanity, for liberal values and the right to express controversial opinions unfettered.

His book foodSTUFF is a delightful, delectable combination of memoir and cookbook. In it he tells of his life from its humble beginnings in an English working-class family to an illustrious career holding a pen.

Like with a well-written song, words and music mix to create something beautiful. Jackman’s much-experienced quill has created a book where the narrative and the recipes are eloquently intertwined.

The narrative part of the book has two distinct writing styles: Tony Jackman, the person and Tony Jackman the writer. Each will give their reader much pleasure, although my personal preference was for the former.

One learns about the life and values of the man behind the pen, one travels and observes with him and learns about some of the events that shaped him. There is no doubt much more to tell and stories to share, maybe (and hopefully) content for another book.

The recipes in foodSTUFF should easily fit the capabilities of the good home cook. They include a Proper Yorkshire Pudding, Brussel Sprouts with Bacon and Parmesan, Cape Bouillabaisse, Greek Shoulder of Lamb, Cardamom Chicken and Pan-Fried Salmon with a Thyme and Fynbos Honey Glaze. And amongst others: Ratafia Figs and Chocolate Tart, for the sweet of tooth.

We tried his Cardamom Chicken recipe and it gave us a flavourful, delicious meal.

Jackman’s recipe offering is unpretentious and its diverse dishes are all full of ‘good taste’

foodSTUFF is a pleasure to read, Tony Jackman’s writing embraces his readers with a warmth that makes one feel at home. His recipes may tempt some of them to seek him out and ask for a space at his dining room table…..



Professor Jonathan Jansen is a leading South African educationist, commentator and the author of several books including the best-selling Letters to My Children. He is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, where he earned the reputation for transformation and a deep commitment to reconciliation.

In March 2015, a postgraduate student at the University of Cape Town poured human excrement over the campus statue of Cecil John Rhodes. In the weeks and months that followed, a series of student demonstrations erupted across historically English university campuses of South Africa. This spread to historically Afrikaans universities.

In his new book, As By Fire, Professor Jansen examines the unprecedented disruption of universities that caught South Africa by surprise. He conducts frank interviews with 11 of the Vice Chancellors most affected, he strives to make sense of the forces at work and why the protests escalated into chaos. He considers what is driving and exasperating our youth.

“I decided to dispense with unnecessary jargon and to focus on what are sometimes complex ideas in everyday language. The crisis in South African universities is too important a topic to cloud or conceal important issues behind the shroud of academic pretence.”

At the time, reading about the prolonged unrest at our universities, it was not usually clear what was going on and it was difficult to understand all the factors involved.

But Prof Jansen, with this book, has given a “no words minced” account of what happened and an analysis of the forces involved. By so doing he has given us an impressive and important work, one that is well-considered, well-balanced and necessary to try and understand the ongoing complexities that affect our universities.

The interviews with the Vice Chancellors are powerful and revealing in many ways. Not only do they provide insight into the ‘engine room’ of running a South African university today, but also the extraordinary challenges they faced during the protests. These 11 VCs are no ordinary people.

The subject matter of As By Fire does not make for ‘light’ reading, but enlightening it certainly is.

At the end of the book, Jansen’s conclusion to it may not be all that optimistic, but he is nothing if not a realist: “More than ever before, our chances of establishing revitalised South African universities that are well resourced and well positioned  to prepare the next generation of leaders in the sciences, the humanities, and society at large depend  on a calibre of leadership that is both compassionate in speaking to the student heart and competent in leading our universities in a demanding world of teaching, research, and public duty.”

“We must repair what was wronged even as we reconcile what remains divided. Any other path will destroy both campus and country”.

“But there is one remaining glimmer of hope. There is a reason that these institutions are called public universities. They belong to all of us, the ordinary citizens of South Africa. It is possible to salvage our universities if ordinary citizens once again reclaim the public in our public universities. Such broad-based civic action constitutes a realistic project.”

With wise heads like Professor Jansen to guide us…….




A truly delectable read



Michelle Kuo was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan to immigrants from Taiwan. After graduating with a degree in Social Studies and Gender Studies at Harvard College, she joined Teach for America and moved to the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. She left this teaching post to pursue the study of law and is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Her book Reading with Patrick is a true story from her time as a young English teacher in the Delta, the land of cotton and extreme poverty and the stomping ground of the early Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Under pressure from her parents to further her career and settle down, Michelle resisted and wanted to ‘make a difference’. She was 22 and believed that books could change the lives of her students.

“Books had taught me to admire a person’s will to confront the world, to evaluate his experience honestly”, as Ralph Ellison wrote.

Kuo was assigned to an alternative school called Stars. It was being used by the local administration as a dumping ground for the so-called ’bad kids’. It was here that she met Patrick, who at the time was fifteen years old and in the eighth grade. Mild-mannered, Patrick was a listener and a reluctant speaker.

“He seemed lost, as if he’d got off the school bus by accident.” In spite of everything, many of Kuo’s students, including Patrick, remained optimistic about their futures. She worried about her teaching tasks including how to get them to read and write and talk.

“There are certain kids for whom you bring all your hope.” Patrick was one such kid.

Through teacher Michelle, for the first time, the children in her class began to engage with ideas and dreams beyond their small town, and to gain an insight into themselves. She read to them and got them reading too and in even a small way for some, the engagement with literature became a tool for healing and for growth.

Reading with Patrick is an inspirational book. Beautifully written, and as its base, it tells the story of friendship, between a young teacher and a student. But it delivers so much more, much that could easily resonate with the South African experience, dealing as it does with race education and justice.

Michelle eventually leaves her teaching post to further her studies in law. After a couple of years, she reconnects with Patrick, whose circumstances have undergone a dramatic change…..

For readers who like Kuo believe in the power of reading books or for those who happy to read a hearty-warming, poignant and moving true story, Reading with Patrick is to be cherished.

That early desire to ‘make a difference’ never left Michelle Kuo. Today she is a Professor at the American University of Paris and teaches in its History, Law, and Society program on issues related to race, punishment, immigration, and the law. She is married to the Albert Wu, a historian.





In a postscript to his second novel, The Draughtsman, author Robert Lautner recalls reading an interview with one of the descendants of Topf & Sons, which used to be a prestigious engineering firm in Erfort, Germany. After unification, Dagmar Topf was interested in holding on to the factory and family villa which was now labelled as the workplace where ‘the engineers of the Final Solution’ designed the ovens for the concentration camps of the SS.

Why would you want to retain that? Why wouldn’t you raze it to the ground? Dagmar’s attitude was –They were only doing the jobs. They had to. What choice did they have?

The Draughtsman is set in 1944 Germany and its central character is Ernst Beck. Unemployed since graduating as an engineer, he is relieved to finally get a job. Right from the start at Topf & Sons, he is assigned to its smallest team, the Special Ovens Department, reporting directly to Berlin. Ernst’s role is to annotate plans for new crematoria that are specifically designed to burn day and night. Their destination, for Topfs’ new client, the SS, is the concentration camps.

Slowly, the real nature of his work dawns on Ernst and he has a challenging decision to make. He can chose to leave his job and return to the insecurity of being unemployed, or he can just continue designing the crematoria, and the accompanying moral ambiguity. He is faced with the choice between taking the easy way out or doing what is right.

When his wife reveals a previously undisclosed truth about her past, the nature of his work at Topf & Sons becomes even more uncomfortable for him.

The Draughtsman is an extraordinary work of fiction. It is not as such a Holocaust story, but using that time period as its setting, it deals with some of the contradictions of human nature and specifically how deeply complicit we can become in the face of fear.

The original Topf & Sons factory site in Erfurt, is todaya Holocaust memorial and museum

Lautner’s writing is such that he is able to equally add a human side to the oppressors and those who suffered, and put the reader into the shoes of each. Without resorting to cliché or caricature, he has superbly managed to portray an authenticity in his characters, their dialogue and the situations in which they find themselves.

The emotional impact of its narrative makes for a challenging but superb read, but the book is an exceptional work one that is deserving of a wide readership, and is likely to be remembered long after its last page is turned

Definitely earmarked as one of my Savourite Books of 2017.

The Draughtsman’s theme has much resonance in today’s world. For example, here in South Africa, the question contemplated by many who lived through the apartheid era, what could we have done, and did we do enough?

Robert Lautner is the pseudonym for the author of historical adventure fiction. He lives on the Pembrokeshire coast with his wife and children. He has a diverse working background, prior to becoming a writer, he owned a comic book shop, worked as a wine merchant, and was a photographic consultant.