My Kyrosmagica Review of Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic


Goodreads Synopsis:

Originally part of a collaborative project with photographer David Goldblatt, Double Negative is a subtle triptych that captures the ordinary life of Neville Lister during South Africa’s extraordinary revolution. Ivan Vladislavic lays moments side by side like photographs on a table. He lucidly portrays a city and its many lives through reflections on memory, art, and what we should really be seeking.

My review:


This was another great suggestion from Norwich Writer’s Centre summer reading adventure. More details of the summer reads are at

Double Negative is published by And Other Stories, an alternative UK publisher that brings “collaborative, imaginative and shamelessly literary” works to the fore with their annual subscription package. Join the mailing list at: Follow on twitter @andothertweets, and join on Facebook: And Other Stories. Check out their website:

Our main protagonist Neville is a young white man, a university drop out, back home living in his parents house in Johannesburg.  He seems to have lost his way and is painting lines and arrows in parking lots with fellow worker Jaco. On the surface Jaco may seem okay but don’t be deceived by impressions. “Jaco was like a can that had been shaken, for all his jokey patter, he was full of dangerous energies, and if you prodded him in the wrong place, he would go off pop.”   The era is pre apartheid, Neville doesn’t like to get too involved, he prefers to stand on the periphery watching events unfold, a wavering character. Though he does take exception to his  father’s new neighbour’s out and out racism. “An odourless poison leaked out of him.” “His prejudice was a passion.” His father fears that he will fall in with the wrong crowd.  Neville has no idea what he wants to do with his life so his father introduces him to a family friend, a famous photographer Saul Auerbach who takes Neville out for the day with a British journalist, Brookes who is looking for a pre-apartheid story.   Spending a day with Auerbach changes Neville’s life. He  is encouraged to play a game of chance as they stand on top of a hill. Each choose a house to visit at random not knowing who lives inside or what they may find. For me, the story really grasped my attention at this point.  They only get to see two of the houses. Neville’s choice is abandoned due to poor light. Auerbach’s portraits of the first two become celebrated pieces.

Nev is awakened by the experience, now it is as if he is seeing life through a camera lense. The narrative moves swiftly on, giving us snapshots of  South Africa during this period of tumultuous change. Nevillle struggles with the concept of duty but takes the easy way out and moves to London to avoid military service. His day with Auerbach made  such an lasting impact on him that he becomes a photographer.  But he misses his home in South Africa and longs to return.”The poetry of the moment made me long for the prose of Johannesburg. I went to see a travel agent.”  An old lady had thrown chicken feed into the ballot box!  He returns to post apartheid Johannesburg but much has changed. His former home seems alien to him. Now Neville is a fairly successful photographer being interviewed by  Janie, a blogger. He thinks about the day spent with Auerbach often.  He has not forgotten his choice of house, and he decides to visit decades later. Behind every front door there is a story to be told and each story is so different. Each photograph can be so different from the next. The possibilities are endless.

Double Negative spans decades in time. It handles these changes well.  I particularly liked Nev’s quote:  “I’m growing into my father’s language: it will fit me eventually like his old overcoat that was once two sizes too big.”

Double Negative is exceptionally well written. It captures an everyday life against the backdrop of South Africa’s incredible revolution in an engaging portrait of a city and its many diverse citizens.  I loved the link with photography, and the whole idea of the Double Negative. The following quote is taken from a later section in the novel when a mature Nev is talking to his wife Leora.

“She was being ironic, obviously,” she said.


“And so are you.”

“I guess.”

“The whole thing is ironic.”

“Including the ironies.”

“Maybe they cancel one another out then,” Leora said, “Like a double negative.”


Saul Auerbach is a fictional character though he has similarities to David Goldbatt, South Africa’s celebrated photographer. Goldblatt began photographing in 1948 and has recorded South Africa through the period of  apartheid to the present day. There is a very interesting article about him at ideastap :

Also he featured on African voices on CNN:

My rating:

4 engaging Film Strips! Highly recommended.

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Authors website

Have you read Double Negative? Do comment I’d love to hear from you.

Bye for now,


Marje @ Kyrosmagica xx

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