A South African tale of brief passion

2009-12-02 00:00

THIS is one of those all South African stories that must make expatriates sigh and long for the motherland, but not for the good old bad old days.

It resonates with much that is familiar­ to those old enough to have known apartheid: the previously fraught subjects of sex across the colour bar and mixed-race children. Set in Cape Town and Johannesburg in the early nineties, it is historically interesting.

The promotional literature touts this as a love story, but it’s a tragic one, in the tradition of grand but brief passions that shape and colour people’s lives forever. Sara Highbury has never married, but she had one great love, Herbert Wakeford.

A one-time diamond digger, he suffers from a degenerative brain disease and spends much of the novel in an institution. The sections that describe his gradual decline are heartbreaking.

The characters are finely drawn and the author has wonderful powers of observation and description, but the plot is complex and requires a slow and careful reading. It deserves this also because it’s a wonderful piece of writing, and other critics loved it, understandably.

However, there is little to lift the misery of the human condition that pervades the lives of the three main characters.

As a result, I want to tell the book editor that I have done more than my share of heavy reading recently — patriarchy­ and misogyny, child abuse, the pain of parenting, eating disorders, and now apartheid and brain disease.

I am way overdue for some frothy reading matter to review, so when the next consignment of books comes in, I want first choice of the light and fluffy stuff. Please.

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