South African author and winner of the 2020 Afritondo Prize Jarred Thompson just released his debut novel The Institute for Creative Dying on February 1. Published by Afritondo, Thompson’s psychological thriller explores the depths of mortality in this fascinating and slightly macabre story.
As the title suggests, The Institute for Creative Dying focuses on an institute of sorts that helps people die peacefully. Set in a creepy house located in Northcliff, a wealthy residential suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, the story features five strangers who have come to this place to discover an end to life. The strangers include a model, a former nun, a couple in crisis, and an offender newly released from prison.
The five characters place their trust in the Institute’s hosts, the Mortician and Mustafa. They then “open their minds and bodies to an alternative experience.” The publisher’s synopsis grimly notes that not all five of them will survive, “or at least not in the way they imagined—but all of them will be shown the limits of their living.”
Although morbid in theme and style, Thompson’s book will not fail to disappoint readers. This is how the publisher’s note describes the Institute itself:
You wouldn’t know it was there, the unnumbered house behind the iron-grille gate, just below the craggy rocks of Northcliff ridge. To the untrained eye the rambling property might seem neglected, with its tangle of trees and untamed indigenous bush. But there is purpose here, and a peaceful, subterranean focus on all that withers and dies.
We don’t have a lot of African authors writing in the genre of psychological fiction and Thompson’s writing is definitely a unique take on the genre. The Institute for Creative Dying is a visceral and bold exploration of mortality, focusing on the interconnectedness of all forms of being.
In an interview, Thompson says the inspiration for the novel came through his own journey of spirituality. Although he grew up Catholic, he wanted to figure out what his worldview was on life and death, so he read Eastern philosophy and was exposed to different thinkers such as Alan Watts and Ram Dass. He comments:
With Alan Watts, I was listening to one of his lectures and in one of his lectures, he . . . speculates about what if there was a hospital for delightful dying, what if we could approach death in a more playful and creative way and not always see it as something so dour and depressing, which is very interesting because it sort of resonates with the current death-positive movement that is emerging. I kind of took that suggestion of what if there was this place where people could . . . have these limited experiences that promise to transform them outside of a hospice or hospital space? What if there was a different space that could promise you to be more more open to the transformative experience that lies on the other side of life, whatever that may look like?
Jarred Thompson is a South African author and the winner of the 2020 Afritondo Prize. He is a literary and cultural studies researcher and works as a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Pretoria. He has received several prestigious scholarships, including The Global Excellence and Stature Scholarship, The Chris van Wyk Creative Writing Scholarship, two National Arts Council Grants, and an NRF nGAP Scholarship.
If you are a fan of gritty thrillers and mysteries such as Kwei Quartey’s crime novels and Nuzo Onoh’s horror novels, then Thompson’s The Institute for Creative Dying is the perfect book for you to curl up with on a rainy day!