When Paul and Dominique are sent to boarding schools in Natal, their idyllic childhood on a Free State farm is over. Their parents’ leftist politics has made life impossible in the local dorp school. Angry schoolboy Paul is a promising poet, his sister his confidante. But his literary awakening turns into a descent. He flees the oppression of South Africa, only to meet his death in London.
Dominique Botha’s poignant debut is an elegy to a rural existence and her brother – both now forever lost. The novel is based on true events. (Amazon.com blurb)
This evocative read is told in the first person by Dominique Botha herself, which makes it all the more poignant and intimate. There are no holds barred; her story is told with clear-sighted honesty which sometimes borders on the Gothic. Her respect for her parents is paramount, and in spite of their comparatively harsh rule, the book is not a vehicle for criticism, vengeance or complaint.
The familiar South African setting would resonate with any native of this vast and sometimes brutal land, from the muddy, barbel-infested dams to the wide open vistas of waving corn. The farm, Rietpan, is the central, secure, axis of the family’s raison d’être; everything begins, departs from, and ends here. Throughout the storm and stress of this autobiographical memoir, the farm, occupied by generations of Bothas, remains a stabilizing entity, a force that defines them. Botha’s knowledge and vivid descriptions of the plants and animals in her rural home environment are impressive, as are her offhand descriptions of generations-old household skills: curing biltong, making rusks, and preserving fruit. Her evocation of the farm atmosphere is vividly conveyed through use of the senses, the sounds, smells, and textures of her world.
There are many lively themes, including love and tragedy, politics (mainly anti-Apartheid) and farming, conflicts between English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans, complex family dynamics, and sibling rivalry – and understanding. But principally it is about her brother Paul, whom she worships, his growth, his blossoming as a brilliant budding poet, his rebellious spirit, and his tragic decline into drug addiction, and ultimately, death. I found it disturbing to follow this heart-breaking trajectory, from a boy given every opportunity his parents could afford, to the decline of a self-destructive dissident.
The narrator’s voice is that of an Afrikaans first-language speaker, and includes many words from that tongue. But her fluency is natural, and her style captivating and remarkably fresh. Her economy with words makes for a succinct and powerful style. It is very descriptive, and often poetic:
Mahems (a rare crane) used to forage in the vlei looking like ladies with lace headdresses stooping for dropped handkerchiefs.
I woke up in the honey locust avenue under the almost-touching fingertips of leafless winter trees.
I had thrown the letter out of the moving car on the way from school and watched it flutter like a dead moth decanted from a dusty lampshade.
I was engaged from the opening line.