Portraying a changing SA

2010-06-02 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Sharmilla, and Other Portraits

Elleke Boehmer

Jacana

THIS collection of short stories by ­acclaimed writer Elleke Boehmer contains pieces that have been written over a period of 20 years or so. The South Africa they portray covers a longer period, and taken together, they illustrate a changing society and a changing perception of it.

As seems to be inevitable in any collection of stories, some are more successful than others.

In general, it is the longer pieces that have the most impact: the title story about a Cape Town escort whose strangely obsessed client has mysteriously disappeared is one of the most impressive, along with Her Walk in the Park which tells of a highly regarded but ageing South African writer, a veteran of the struggle, who encounters a younger man when out with her carer and proves that age has not blunted her acerbic tongue. Inevitably, Nadine Gordimer comes to mind.

Others that impress are The Father Antenna, Zulu Speaking, Mrs Wedlake and The Bean-Bag Race. But any reader should be able to find something here that speaks to his or her experience of this country, or gives him or her pause for thought. But one of two of the shorter pieces have the feel of ­being there simply to make weight.

At the end of the book, Boehmer has written an epilogue which is a fascinating look at what she calls “writing outside the mother tongue”. Born in Durban to Dutch parents, Boehmer’s father insisted that English would be his daughter’s main language. But language is not all there is to identity. It is an essay that gives the reader a lot to ponder.

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