Just missing the mark

2012-03-21 00:00

WHEN I read the final page of Kathryn White’s second novel, Things I Thought I Knew, I felt a sense of bewildered annoyance. It is, by turns, captivating and frustrating to read.

The story that lies at the heart of this book is of a family torn apart by the pressures of apartheid legislation, and a marital breakdown. The heroine, Lily, and her sister, Jules, are the children of a mixed-race couple, who have taken refuge in the Transkei.

Their rural idyll is brought to a halt when their parents separate, and the children are split up. Lily goes with her mother to East London, while Jules — who can’t pass for a white girl like her sister can — ends up emigrating with her father, and living in the United Kingdom.

But exactly why the family schism occurs, and its effects on all concerned, is never truly explored, and that is the tragedy of this novel for me. I truly believe that White has the makings of a modern family drama and a study of cultural identity in South Africa here — but instead of pursuing it, she heads off in a very different direction.

She endows Lily with spiritual abilities and embroils her in a, frankly, uninteresting love triangle. It’s a sad waste of what could have been a truly poignant South African story.

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