I never read Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, but the title has always stuck with me as an excellent way to sum up humans’ relationship to the other species on this planet. Nineveh, by Henrietta Rose-Innes, is very much about the “some we hate” category. The critters in this category—rodents, insects, reptiles, etc.—have done nothing to earn our enmity. They just gross us out or scare us for being what they are: low level predators, occasional disease vectors, destroyers of the wooden frames of our houses. The protagonist of Nineveh, Katya Grubbs, doesn’t hate any animals. She runs Painless Pest Relocation. Instead of trapping or poisoning pests, she collects them and moves them into the remaining wild areas around Cape Town. She is the Sisyphus of pest removal.
When we meet her, Katya is working with her nephew to remove a swarm of caterpillars from the garden of a rich Cape Towner. She has a method for tricking the caterpillars to swarm into collection boxes. It takes time, much to the annoyance of her client. One of the client’s guests, however, notices the care Katya takes for the fuzzy little guys and offers her a new job, a big one that could put her at the top of the list for pest removal in the city. All she has to do is figure out a way to clear a massive apartment complex, called Nineveh, of an infestation of some kind of biting beetles.
There is an added complication to the job. Katya’s estranged father—a rough, difficult, duplicitous man—previously had the job to get rid of the beetles. Now he’s disappeared. Taking the job would mean walking in his footsteps once again, something Katya has promised herself never to do. Still, she takes the job because her fledgling company needs the money. When she arrives at Nineveh to evaluate the situation, it’s like stepping into another world. Cape Town is a modern city. Nineveh feels like it was built smack in the middle of a wild jungle. It’s isolated. It’s run down. And it’s more than a little haunted by white men who aren’t quite right in the head.
On the face of things, this book sounds straightforward, possibly a little dull. (And gross, if you’re not good with creepy crawlies.) But I found Nineveh to be a meditative book about a daughter coming to terms with her childhood and her father. Life was rough with Grubbs Senior. He wasn’t bad, as such, but he was neglectful and expected his children to be as tough as he was when they broke bones or went hungry between jobs. He was casually cruel to animals and insects, often using them as tools to get jobs by deliberately causing infestations or leaving a few critters behind so that he would have to be called back.
When Katya temporarily occupies a caretaker flat at Nineveh, she finds her father once more up to his old tricks. When she left him before to strike out on her own, it was more a matter of opportunity than choice. In Nineveh, she has to face the choice at last. Who does she want to be? Can she be her best self if she is still somehow attached to her father? So, even though there are a lot of bugs, this book is a fascinating journey of self-discovery set in a place I’ve never read about before.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016 in the United States.