Helena Verbloem, employed by the Museum of Natural History in Durban, South Africa, is a lexicographer working towards the preservation of the fading corners of the Afrikaans language. Assisting the scholar Theo Verway, they plod through a veritable dictionary of complexly rooted vocabulary, each brooding on the supposed mutation and evolution of current words and those forgotten.
Helena leads a simple life at the museum, but that life is derailed when her home is broken into and burglarized. Her apartment is trashed and her carpet vandalized, but most devastating is the missing spread of shells that she had collected throughout her life. Helena imbued this system of shells with not only memories past but with much of her current anxieties; in the absence of these shells, her life begins to unravel.
Ingrid Winterbach gambles much of The Book of Happenstance on her readers' ability to understand the greater connection between Helena and her shells. At first, the disappearance of these shells seems no different than a missing cat in a Haruki Murakami novel, but Winterbach consistently revisits these shells with the obsession of a conchologist. It's very easy to be left behind, and difficult to gauge whether Winterbach wants her characters or these shells to be the more believable, significant presence.
Winterbach wants to light up all these nodes, to connect everything to everything. This notion is actually explicitly laid out in the novel, explained through Helena's friend Sof:
"She points to the horizon. Sky and sea are now one uninterrupted, brooding plane. The ship lies motionless in the distance. 'That's how I would like to write if I could,' [Sof] says, 'with little happening ostensibly but everything charged with meaning.'"
The "everything" of this sentiment is where Winterbach goes astray. She reaches too wide for significant but disparate themes, at once trying to unite crime, science, linguistics and eroticism with the same coincidental charge. She plunges far too deep into scientific and linguistic minutiae, resulting in the criminal and sexual side of the novel to fall flat.
"...fomfaai and fonkfaai - to set things out of kilter. Foerneer (obsolete) - to furnish, to provide, and foepa - finished (usage uncommon). Foeterasie - monkey business. Folterbeul - torturer..."
We're supposed to read these definitions and build connections, but just as with the other facets of the novel Winterbach provides very little impetus to make these links. Eventually, The Book of Happenstance becomes nothing more than a book of untapped diversions. It is a very simple book, yet one that possesses enough dusty corners in which to search for meaning should you so desire.