I had no idea that concentration camps existed during the Boer Wars in South Africa, I had no idea that so many people had been mistreated and ruined at that time, people who were just living their lives and struggling in a harsh environment. In the first section of the book we meet Sarah, struggling to cope as she is interred with her young son into a concentration camp run by the British, her husband is off fighting and their farm has been razed to the ground as part of the scorched earth policy. Sarah is the first link in the chain of this story which travels through time in South Africa from then to 2015. The characters are all linked by family lines and their stories all show something of how the history of a country forms attitudes and social norms all the way through to now. Sarah’s diary of her time in Bloemfontein Camp is horrific, so much so that I wandered off to search for confirmation of the conditions and discovered the most ghastly photographs.
Many years later we meet Rayna and Irma and Willem, Sarah’s descendants in a new South Africa, where the laws have changed, where violence is increasing and where social order has been disrupted. Not everyone is comfortable with the new ways, the abolition of Apartheid and the changing expectations of how the black people are to be treated. The uncomfortable transition to equality is hard to read. The author has done a wonderful job of making you feel every side of the situation. He drew me into the characters world and made me understand their points of view, although it is uncomfortable reading at times, it is hard to deal with such views from this corner of the world. The creeping menace of the ever growing walls to keep the bad guys out, at the same time as keeping the world and your connection to it out.
Willem is so beautifully written, his fragility and sensitivity juxtaposed against his mother’s partner the awful Jans. Willem’s mother Irma, torn between the new bloke in her life and her son who she doesn’t really understand and whom to her mind seems to be lacking something. Thank goodness for Rayna, the grandmother who loves this sensitive boy sincerely, and who ultimately is his saviour. “Know, she didn’t know. No, she didn’t know. Know, if only she’d known.”
This book is a lot! There is so much depth, it has the most beautiful moments amongst the heartbreak and terror. Along the reading journey with this book, not only the terrible history of torture and struggle, I’ve thought about Willem and the others like him, struggling in a harsh society, the terror of their lives, the fear and the trying not to be noticed. The pain of knowing you don’t quite fit with everyone else and trying to disappear. All of this is written so beautifully. I’ll be thinking about this novel for a long time, my poor heart will need to recover.
Bravo Damian, you’ve written a gem of a book and I am so delighted about that as a reader and as a cheerleader.