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Brink (On the Contrary, 1994, etc.) awkwardly mixes magic realism, feminist rhetoric, and political reportage as a South African family's blood-soaked past becomes a reprise of the country's own violent history. When sister Anna calls Kristien in London and tells her that their dying grandmother, Ouma, has stories that she must tell her, Kristien is not entirely surprised. In a dream the night before the call, Ouma had appeared to her on the back of a big bird. And there will be more birds--at the family farm and in the hospital where Ouma now is, badly burned after her farmhouse was set on fire. Kristien, who left South Africa because of apartheid, returns on the eve of the first multiracial elections to find the fearful country caught up in violence. Whites and Coloreds (people of mixed race) are especially fearful, and some whites, like Kristien's boorish brother-in-law Casper, have formed armed militias. Paralleling these developments are the fables Ouma tells Kristien. Like some antique Scheherezade, Ouma, more than a hundred years old, proceeds to spend the last days of her life entrusting Kristien with the family stories And Brink, who has embraced feminism with admirable but uncritical enthusiasm, puts women at the center of these tales. They dominate, shape, and define the past, which too neatly includes a Khaikhoi woman captured by an Afrikaner farmer and then protected by the birds; a Boer Gargantua who hefts wagons, heals, and speaks out on women's rights; a lesbian and her lover; and Ouma herself, who ran off with a Jewish singer. When Ouma finally dies, Kristien's sister Anna, long-abused by Casper and fearful of the future, makes a tragic decision, but Kristien is empowered and ready to stay and help the new country. The past is only schematically reworked here, but the recent present is engagingly fresh and touching as Brink records the high emotions of the historic days of April 1994.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0156006588
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Harcourt Brace