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I remember as a university student in the early 1980s, fresh out of a sheltered existence at my high school, being confronted almost head-on with The World as seen through the eyes of the university student newspaper. Apart from the usual gripes that students had towards the tertiary education policy of the day, the overwhelming memory I have of those weekly student newspapers is the ongoing coverage of the violence and injustice of life in South Africa. As a very naive 17-year-old, I literally felt my eyes and mind being saturated and filled up with far away happenings.
Reading this novel took me right back to how I felt when I read those student rags, with their vivid and emotional reporting, engaging peoples’ physical and emotional pain, the little control they have over the path their lives take, and how hope and human kindness can still be found in the most unexpected places. It is a fabulous story, carefully and sparingly written, not too emotionally awful, but enough to make one ache for the characters and how little they are able to change their condition.
Opening in 1959, in Johannesburg, six year old Miriam lives with her mother Celia who is the maid for an English couple, Ria and Michael. Life is tough for Celia, although Miriam, being a child much loved by her mother, knows no different. The continuing unrest in South Africa leads to Celia’s employers returning to England, and giving Celia a terrible choice − they wish to adopt Miriam and give her the life that she could never have in Johannesburg. It breaks Celia’s heart, and Miriam all-too-suddenly finds herself living in Norwich.
The book then alternates Celia and Miriam narrating their stories as the years pass. Both suffer in their respective environments. Celia has trouble finding and retaining work, she has three older children and has to provide for them as well, black unrest continues unabated and Celia finds herself caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile in Norwich, where black people in the 1960s are almost unheard of, Miriam also has a terrible time. Unable to adjust in any way to life in England or to her new ‘family’, she is a most unhappy girl. An accidental meeting with an Indian girl and her family is the one bright thing in her life, and also becomes her anchor in the years to come.
Eventually Miriam, as an adult in the mid-1980s, finally realising that she needs to attend to the unfinished business of her early life in South Africa, makes the journey back to find where she came from. This perhaps was the most interesting part of the whole book. For here we have a black woman, well educated, speaking with an English accent, with the same rights as all other people in the UK, suddenly finding herself a repressed person, a second class citizen, subject to random searching, violation, and with very few rights.
I met the author socially at a dinner. This book had just been accepted for publishing and all she would modestly say about it was that it was set in South Africa. Very evasive. I am quite blown away that this is what her book was all about, and that it has been written with such humanity, power and intensity. She is South African-born herself, and at university found herself drawn to the protest movement. Knowing that background now, it is hardly surprising she has written this book with injustice and identity as central themes.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
by Fiona Sussman
Published by Alison & Busby