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South of Nirvana

594 pages9 hours


After being involved in a nasty car accident, Andy goes on a weekend yoga retreat with a friend of hers and unwittingly steps into a whole new world. She is amazed to find people living at the retreat centre who prefer less of the things that most people value: less meat, less money, less alcohol, and more cow-dung, insects, pollen, and dust. But also more birdsong, more open spaces, and greater spiritual depth. The setting is south of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Andy needs a couple of weeks to get her head around the idea, but then she decides to apply for the post of voluntary (unpaid... that is, U N P A I D) cleaner at the centre. She quits her job as a corporate secretary and moves to the retreat centre—and her poor aging parents are horrified. Her older brother, who was drunk while driving the car at the time of the accident and who shows no remorse about what happened, says stupid things that hurt her. Her best friend thinks she’s lost her marbles.

Andy quickly finds out that there are plenty of self-professed gurus around, but they are a lot less enlightened and a whole lot more human than anyone wants to admit. By contrast, the true teachers remain hidden in the background. Jacob is one such person: the real backbone of the retreat centre, and a gem of a friend who selflessly teaches her what she needs to know about life, Buddhism, and the Uniperverse.

When the role of cook becomes vacant, Andy bravely takes on the task of feeding all the weird and wacky people who come and go at Hillcrest. Most of them are just crazy stress-balls from the city, but some are real live monks, musicians, or vegan New Agers. Each chapter of the book describes a specific weekend retreat or one of Andy’s other encounters, such as her visits to an almost blind acupuncturist who explains the metaphysical meaning of her leg injury. During her two years at the retreat centre, Andy also rescues a baby bird, uncovers an old grave, reflects on the Goddy of her early childhood, and falls in love with a man who is not Jacob.

South of Nirvana is a novel that runs the gamut from lighthearted and totally irreverent to pensive, with flashes of scholarly brilliance thrown in (borrowed from the hidden gurus). The story offers a poignant illustration of the need to balance spiritual ideals with material reality here on Planet Earth. The book will appeal to readers who are interested in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy but who, for good reason, prefer to stay living in their comfortable city houses rather than do what Andy did.

Readers have described the book as a very enjoyable journey with a gentle pace and memorable message.

The author based the story on her own experience of living at a rural retreat centre (though it was north of Johannesburg) for six years, where she met her good friend Johann who is thinly disguised as the character of Jacob in the book. Any other resemblance between the characters in South of Nirvana and real living people is entirely accidental, a bizarre synchronicity that should be blamed on the Uniperverse. Because as Andy comments at the end of her narrative, “I expect that if you look closely, you may even recognise from my story someone you know, or thought you knew. In fact, if you look more closely than that, you may even begin to recognise yourself.”

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