A black South African writer, now New York—based, debuts with a novel that, as it seeks to explain the real-life 1993 murder of young American Amy Biehl, is often more an angry indictment of apartheid (justified) and of whites in general (less justified). Biehl was an idealistic Fulbright Scholar who, while working on a democracy project, was dragged from her car in a black township and stabbed to death by a mob of young blacks. The Biehl family has been remarkably forgiving, though the youths were subsequently released. The narrative takes the form of an imaginary letter written to the young woman's mother by Mandisa, the mother of one of the accused, 20-year-old Mxolisi. She attempts to elucidate why her gentle son became a killer, recalling her own childhood and the brutal relocation of her entire community to Guguletu, a segregated area in a barren place far from the city. At 15, she accidentally became pregnant—which, as much as apartheid, led to a hard life for both mother and son: Mandisa, forced to leave school, became a maid and reared Mxolisi alone. Eventually, bright Mxolisi also dropped out of school, in his case because Mandisa could no longer afford his textbooks. He was soon active in the "No Education Before Liberation" movement of the late 1980s, as black children left the classrooms for the streets to protest apartheid in increasingly violent ways. Popular and gifted, he became a leader of the gang that would turn murderous. The story, a heartfelt brief in support of a son and a lost generation, has a vehement, polemical tone. Whites are described as the "scourge ‘' that must be removed; Mandisa tells Mrs. Biehl that "people like your daughter have no inborn sense of fear. They so believe in their goodness" that it "blinker(s) their perception." The prose is also uneven, and the voice far too sophisticated for a narrator of supposedly limited education. A disappointing take on a vital, relevant subject.
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