‘“Everyone is in love on MDMA, but this is where it peaks, the big blow out, Ibiza, 1997… the hedonist’s holiday…”’ Amid the euphoric, drug-fuelled highs, the raves, and the beach, a group of six people from different parts of the world form the deepest bond of friendship there is, becoming a ‘tribe’, apparently unshakeable in their love for each other. ‘“Sometimes in life there are moments when everything shifts.’’’ This is the premise for the stunning new novel, Tribe, by Rahla Xenopoulos, which shifts the reader.
Olivia is the London ‘it-girl’, a beautiful blonde, with expensive tastes, but deep emotions. Her husband, Benjy, indulges her, knowing he could never find someone better, and that she chose him, even though she’d resisted at first.
‘“I can’t fall in love with you, Benjamin Stone,” she’d said, sipping a mojito back in London. “Why not?” he’d laughed, knowing she would. “Because you have the attention span of a Sunday morning.” “What do you mean?” “You’ll be easy fun, but inevitably you’ll become Monday.” She’d been wrong; he’d prove himself as constant as eight days a week.’
Jude is the shy, Oxford-educated psychiatrist with a penchant for strumming a guitar. His partner, Tselane, is a South African who was exiled to London as a young child; someone who does not identify with the country of her birth. Brothers Hannes and Pierre were both involved in the Apartheid struggle movement. After becoming a member of the tribe, Hannes finally gains the courage to divorce his wife, admitting he’s gay, and escaping to the bush to start a luxury game lodge, but at the same time alienating his daughter. Pierre becomes a hotshot marketing executive, but balances his life with surfing while condemning the shallow nature of his profession.
Together, the tribe grows to depend on each other, forging beautiful and rare friendships; the kind that is the envy of those who will never experience it. But, five years after their Ibiza holiday, the group is torn apart. Jude has a drug overdose; unable to stick to the recreational, free love-type highs of his friends. Tselane bans most of the group, except for Olivia, from contacting Jude, to rid him of his triggers.
But, twelve years on, another knock at death’s door forces the tribe together at Hannes’ lodge, where they all have to confront their own demons, and examine the damage they’ve inflicted on one another. Feelings of guilt, abandonment, resentment, and jealousy spill out, as the six friends try to resurrect their friendship, and save each other. This group, this tribe, which considered themselves as gods and goddesses, turn out to be just as messy as everyone else.
The book is a testament of to extraordinary writing; the descriptions of its characters are rich, with an unusual and beautiful turn of phrase. In addition, the story is uniquely set against a soundtrack (yes, it’s not only movies that can do this). Coldplay’s “Yellow”, Faithless’ “Insomnia”, Jeff Buckley’s “Halleluja”, Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; these are just some of the songs that create a visceral response in the reader. I could hear each track in my head as I read the words. The novel is overwhelming and exhilarating.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith has called Tribe “The Less Than Zero of 2015”, referring to Brett Easton Ellis acclaimed 1985 novel of the name, about a group of disillusioned, rich, drugged-up youths in Los Angeles. How did she get an international music start to read this book? He’s a friend, Xenopoulos causally explains during our interview (podcast underneath). The book also reminded me of The Breakfast Club, something she agrees with.
Tribe is a story about confronting the darkest parts of oneself, about the rarest of relationships – real friendship. It’s not only the characters who are forced to confront their painful mistakes; the reader inevitably has to do the same. Despite its comparison to Less Than Zero, this novel is fresh, uniquely engaging, and unlike any I’ve read before.
“The first wave of euphoria washes over and through the six people in the room as a deep bond develops between them.
And here’s the thing. If you were looking down at them from the Ibizan sky, you would know: they can do anything, be whoever it is they choose to be. This is just the beginning of the trip, the night, their friendship, of their entire lives.
Laughing and touching one another, they walk out the door. Benjamin grabs a pair of ‘70s sunglasses; white frames with dark lenses. He places them on Olivia’s face; she looks like Woodstock, 1969. Pierre looks at her and says, “Different drugs. When I met you in London, you were on coke, the ME drug. Now you’re on E, the US drug.
Outside it’s the summer of love all over again. People are popping pills called white doves, cars have smiley stickers, and strangers embrace. Boys sport green Afros and girls in fake fur bikinis dance in the street. This generation is going to get it right; they have better drugs.
Fuelled by serotonin as abundant as their beauty, they walk into the night.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Tribe is published by Umuzi.