About Unpacking…

Daily Mail:

The lush descriptions of Africa are lovely, and the story absorbing and thoughtful, with more than one twist in the tail. Read more

The Times:
Jilla is a sharp and often funny interpreter of modern life and morality. Read more

Sunday Times:
The harsh beauty and isolation makes the well-heeled watering hole a smart setting for the novel’s Big Chill-like premise. Read more

A well-written, entertaining read about the choices we make in our lives

Set on a luxury game farm in the Kalahari, Shireen Jilla’s The Art of Unpacking Your Life is an entertaining, although at times flawed novel type of read about a group of old university friends from England celebrating a birthday.

The birthday is that of forty-year-old Connie, who has been responsible for bring them all to South Africa. It’s set on Gau, a fictional lodge, but one that closely resembles those in real life, lending an authenticity to this novel. The story opens as the group arrive on the reserve, with a “sociable weaver bird nest splayed across the acacia thorn tree like an ancient, sun-damaged headdress”.

Jilla’s writing is evocative and descriptive, bringing the sun-baked yet mysterious Kalahari desert alive through the story, from descriptions of the typically thatch lodge to the burning sands, to the wild animals who survive there.

At first it’s a little hard keeping track of the characters, but each soon emerges in their own right as strongly well-developed individuals. There’s Connie’s philandering politician husband, Julian, devoted to her, certainly, but with each infidelity he wounds her further, although she’s long got used to it, or so she thinks. There’s Sara, an ambitious single barrister who’s come away on this trip harbouring a guilty secret about her latest case. Lizzie bemoans the path her life has taken – no man, and a low-end job in which she’s failed to advance.

There’s sensitive Luke – newly divorced – and an old flame of barrister Sara, and Matt, having a surrogate baby with his new wife, which he confesses soon after they all arrive. Daniel wants to settle by buying land, but his partner Alan is less sure about that, which highlights a crack in their relationship.

And then there’s Gus, the game ranger, who will add further spice to the mix with his own blend of romantic allure.

The story of their individual dramas and a series of revelations plays out against the backdrop of the days at the lodge, the game drives, a night spent in the dessert for “the girls” of the group, and the sightings of the animals, which lends further excitement and tension to the story. This is what I like to call a “travel novel” in which the action is set against a place foreign to the protagonists, in which place is both character and mover of the action as that of the characters. And Jilla writes well about the African bush, bringing it to vivid real life.

At times the plot development becomes a little too obvious, a tad trite, but by then you’re so well engrossed in the story that you barely notice. This is a well-written, entertaining read about the choices we make in our lives, and the hope that can undo those decisions we thought were written in stone.

By Arja Salafranca

Project manager: calling in reinforcement

Structural variations sounds like the title of an experimental, electronic album and indeed my concerns over the cost of such items as wall ties, beam ties and extra steels and other reinforcements required for our house have been like a theme song raging through my head. For a while I stopped visiting the house.
With a book to launch and a death in my family, it was too much to face.
Yet the need for such things as beam ties is part of the gritty reality of restoring a house built in 1710 and there has been progress. Andy and crew from Hurlingham Developments completely stripped the house, a process which will allow Form, our structural engineers, to see the state of the brickwork and the foundations. Andy stripped it all: floors, ceilings and roofs, faster than my daughter gets undressed for swimming. He works like greased lightning — and how many renovators can boast that about their builder? Our house becomes roofless and the rubbish and tiles disappear in one Saturday alone. It is staggering. We receive texts from Andy’s new fan club, our amazed neighbours.
I proudly spread the good news. But our rooflessness is the root of the intractable problem of structural variations. When the roof is replaced, we will be putting the weight of another whole floor on a worn, ancient structure. Sanchia from our architects vividly explains the problem. “Imagine your house is an old cardboard box. When you sit on it, it completes squashes. Unless it’s properly reinforced.”
‘The wall ties are needed to reinforce the brickwork walls, which are essentially peeling away from each other,” explains Max, Sanchia’s colleague, calmly.
I have pontificated before about the importance of a strong, trusting architect-client relationship. It is so important now when our house is in need of reinforcement, which comes with a large extra price tag: wall ties (£2,500 plus VAT), beam ties and steels (£6,160 plus VAT).
We want and need to do this work. However much I may wish it all to be very different. Max soothes: “This is not unusual. We have a contingency in the cost plan.” While Sanchia rightly reminds us: “With a building of this age, it is always safest to go with the structural engineer’s advice.”
Architectural development is by its nature ageist. With an old house, it is also wise to have a drain survey (£440.40 plus VAT). A one-man band from Drain 365 comes and puts cameras down our manholes — one under the hallway, the other under the old kitchen.
The drain survey highlights that Thames Water needs to carry out a repair to the collapsed pipework in our road. The company responds instantly. I dream of “a good utility story”. Briefly. Thames Water makes a preliminary visit. Despite having a copy of our drain survey, the engineers need to come back and do their own investigations. I am promised an update by April 14. When I chase them on April 17, they say their own report contradicts our comprehensive survey. There is no problem. They cannot give me the details, because it’s Friday afternoon. But they will refer my case to their specialist team, who will compare the two reports and get back to us before next Friday afternoon.
The drains under our property are our responsibility. We will have to carry out 2m of epoxy lining works between “manhole one” and “lateral two” (£900 plus VAT), 100mm of epoxy patch repair 16m downstream of “manhole two” (£385 plus VAT), and carry out cleaning works to remove roots (£130 plus VAT).
It is amazing I sleep. I do because I no longer feel responsible for the house. Andy has been on site just four weeks, which have included Easter. Yet the scaffolding was up immediately, the structural support to the ground floor is almost in place. He has rebuilt the exterior brickwork to the back courtyard. The new roof steels are ordered.
His progress hails his inaugural bill. We have no idea exactly how this works. Sanchia explains that she will value the work monthly, and spreads the cost of preliminaries, dividing them evenly over the length of build.
Unexpectedly buoyed by writing this feature, I brave seeing the house. Yes, the ground-floor extension is open to the sky — well the protective covering. But five men are busy at work at 4pm on a Friday, sacks of cement are piled along one side of the porch, fresh wood along the other. Steels form another pile.
I am beginning to visualise the house that we fell in love with, rising up stronger and even more beautiful than before.