THE CARDINALS by Bessie Head

THE CARDINALS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

For the first time in book form, a posthumous novella plus seven very short pieces by noted black South African writer Head--stories that are generally more suggestive of ideas to be developed later than works that stand on their own. A child of mixed race and unknown parentage, Head, who died in exile in 1986 at the age of 49, was indelibly marked both by her personal history and by the political situation of her native South Africa. Raised by foster parents, self-educated for the most part, Head turned to writing when she could find no other work, eventually becoming a journalist on a leading black Johannesburg newspaper. She left the country in 1964 for permanent exile in neighboring Botswana, however, not only because she feared imprisonment for her political activities but because she felt the conditions there made writing impossible. ""The Cardinals"" is in many ways a brief but intense reprise of her early life and the major themes that would later preoccupy her. For Head, Cardinals ""in the astrological sense are those who serve as the base or foundation for change,"" and the novella's protagonist, Mouse, emotionally stunted by her childhood, and her lover Johnny are two such people. Mouse, whose mother sold her as an infant to a childless couple in a city slum, is initially happy and learns to read on her own; but when her adopted father molests her, she runs away and spends the rest of her childhood in foster homes. A letter to a magazine gets her a job as a reporter; there, she meets the mercurial but charismatic older Johnny. Their love affair, tainted unwittingly with incest, develops inevitably against a background of increased repression. The other pieces here are much shorter explications of the same preoccupations: variants of a character like Johnny and what it means to be a writer. Uneven writing relieved by powerful evocations of passion and suffering: a reminder of how good Head could be, and was.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1996
Page count: 141pp
Publisher: Heinemann