Three South African women entwine their lives as each fights to be a mother in this novel by a white South African living in Toronto.
The story, centered on two well-to-do Afrikaner sisters tended by an impoverished black teenager, shares elements with The Help. Marais, as she demonstrated in her first book, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words (2017), likes stories of unexpected collisions between white and black women, all in turmoil. The new book begins with 17-year-old Zodwa seeking out a village healer for a concoction brewed to end a pregnancy. In Chapter 2, the action switches to an orphanage in Zaire, where aid worker Delilah receives a mysterious letter that requires her immediate return to South Africa. Meanwhile, Ruth, after a run of plastic surgeries and men, is staging her own faux suicide to hang on to her latest husband. Both Zodwa’s and Ruth’s missions fail. In this thickly plotted novel, readers discover on Page 40 that the prim Delilah, once a Catholic novitiate, is sister to Ruth, “South Africa’s Wild Child.” The tired virgin/whore duo converge on the family homestead, a failed avocado farm, to see their quarrels interrupted by the delivery of a black newborn on their doorstep. Ruth determines to adopt the boy even as Delilah faces the consequences of giving up a son from her own long-ago teen misfortune. Then Zodwa, more than a year postpartum, tracks down her child and signs on as the sisters' maid. Shame animates all three protagonists, who lubricate these pages with tears—it's hard to think of another novel with as much weeping. Marais strikes a jaunty tone even as she salts her story with rape, HIV, racism, and homophobia. The writing is breathless and fraught: “Zodwa closes her eyes and feels a spark of hope she never knew she was so desperately seeking.”
Every character could use a copy of Girl, Stop Apologizing.