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Many of the novels written by South African authors deal with the effects of apartheid and the country’s rocky history. Imraan Coovadia takes a new approach in telling the story of South Africa from the introduction of the metric system in 1970 to the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
The novel is divided into ten chapters, each set in a different time and describing a few hours in the life of ordinary South Africans during pivotal points in our history. The episodes cover a wide variety of experiences and show the diversity that South Africa holds. The first chapter, 1970, coincides with the introduction of the metric system in South African schools. It follows Ann Rabie as she deals with her teenage son, Paul, and her liberal, politically active husband Niel Hunter. Ann features at various points across the four decades in which the story takes place. In 1973 a man becomes a criminal when he loses his pass book, while an Indian rocker struggles with depression when the colour of his skin stands in the way of his musical career in 1979. Ann possibly witnesses treason at the Soviet Embassy in London in 1985 involving Oliver Tambo and the Soviet Union. In 1990 a thief and possible informer is punished by locals in Tembisa, and friends reflect on how far the country has come at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. 1999 describes the aftermath of the information revealed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the effects of former president Thabo Mbeki’s denial of the existence of HIV and AIDS features in 2003. In 2010 a young woman’s phone is stolen when she buys a Vuvuzela for the opening match between South Africa and Mexico at the Soccer World Cup. Finally, the novel ends with a look back to 1976 with the introduction of television in South Africa.
Characters appear in each other’s stories in a natural and well-crafted way, bringing a collection of short stories together into a complete novel. Coovadia shows the experience of living through South Africa’s historical events from the average person’s point of view as they deal with the worries of everyday life. He does so delicately and without forcing a point, carefully revealing the cracks in our history. He shows the randomness of life and how random acts can set in motion a pattern of events that can change history. Tales of the Metric System is insightful and expertly written, with good measures of suspense and emotion against a clever backdrop of South Africa’s history.