Abuse, through the eyes of a child

2010-03-03 00:00

THIS novel is the first-person narrative of young Theresa, known as Terry, who tells of her earliest memories of growing up in Johannesburg in the sixties and seventies through to adolescence. The story is essentially that of growing up in a dysfunctional family shaped in an apartheid South Africa­.

The strength of telling a story through the eyes of a child is that the narrative­ has an intensity that is seemingly unmediated. Terry’s account is lively and her observations keen. Her self-centred, alcoholic mother, Lizette, and especially her stepfather, Piet, are brought to violent life, and her descriptions of Johannesburg streets and suburbs are graphic.

But Terry’s family is worse than dysfunctional. Despite her intelligence, optimism and resilience that propels her story forward, despite the limited support she gets from some friends and adults — particularly from the family’s domestic worker, Sophie, whose anxiety turns to her own son who becomes involved in the student uprising of 1976 — the abuse that Terry suffers is relentless.

Through Terry, the author, a public interest lawyer who works with NGOs focusing on children’s and women’s rights, is able to provide insight into what it feels like to grow up with parents who not only neglect their children, but who are are actively cruel.

Sections of the book have a remarkable authenticity and are consequently harrowing. Not only is Terry abused by her parents but she is also betrayed by many adults who are in a position to help her.

In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Emdon thanks the courageous­ women who allowed her into their lives as they permitted her to interview them, and she singles­ out one woman in particular whose story was perhaps the greatest inspiration.

In this novel, Emdon is able to give these women a voice. It is to be hoped that adults in positions similar to the relatives, teachers and others who failed to protect Terry, are able to listen­.

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