Second novel disappoints

2010-06-16 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Spilt Milk

Kopano Matlwa

Jacana

FOLLOWING as it does the lively Coconut, which has just won ­Kopano Matlwa a share of the Wole Soyinka Prize, it seemed legitimate to have high expectations of Spilt Milk. And indeed, Matlwa writes extremely well, is often perceptive and is not afraid of a bit of experimentation. But in the end, Spilt Milk is just that — a bit of a mess.

It is a short novel, and deals in the main with Mohumagadi, the headmistress of an elite school, which she has founded, though how is never really explained. We are given glimpses of a troubled and difficult childhood in the hands of the church, but not much more than that. And religion is a complete no-no at Sekolo sa Ditlhora, along with movies and a good many other trappings of the West.

Oddly enough, punishment doesn’t seem to feature much either — these are children after all — until four of them are caught in a bit of apparent sexual experimentation on a bus trip.

And, also oddly, a bishop has asked Mohumagadi to take in a disgraced white priest for a short time while he sorts out his life. He is asked to run the detention class. It turns out that he and Mohumagadi have a bit of the same kind of experimentation in their mutual past, and in trying to exorcise their own demons, tragedy will result.

It’s all very well eschewing realism, and making characters stand for the two opposing forces of South Africa’s past with all their misunderstanding, mistrust and inability to connect, but there has to be a degree of believability. Neither Mohumagadi nor Father Bill is convincing, and too much is sketched in too lightly. Matlwa is hugely talented, but this book is a disappointment. Let’s hope for better to come.

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