Boehmer (Sharmilla, And Other Portraits, 2011, etc.) creates a microcosm of apartheid South Africa, telling the story of one girl growing up in the shadow of her family’s past.
South Africa is the only home Ella has ever known, but her relationship with her parents is strained by their past back in Holland. Her mother, who lost the sister after whom Ella is named, struggles to be present for her young daughter. Her father, a former soldier, relives his grand adventures while raging against his present life. The two are so wrapped up in their own lives and losses that Ella exists largely outside of their attention, slipping through the shadows from which she watches their anguish and anger. But when his attention is turned to his daughter, Har is often cruel and cold. He projects onto her his deep rage, engaging his young daughter in a silent battle that carries over into her future, when an act of omission leaves her stranded in a suddenly dangerous South Africa. Though the book is beautifully written, the author doesn’t offer much in the way of context, forcing readers to orient themselves quickly to both Dutch war history and South African society. The descriptions of the landscape are breathtaking, invoking the vastness of the country and the magic of childhood. But much of the book is given over to Har’s nostalgia-laced and alcohol-fueled rants about his golden days, making the plot feel both muddy and slow. As an intimate view of what apartheid looked like within one privileged family, the novel is illuminating, particularly given Har’s flippantness regarding his racism and Ella’s innocence. But this doesn’t redeem a book that is otherwise difficult to engage with.
While it provides some interesting looks at apartheid South African society, the novel will appeal primarily to those with a deep understanding of 20th-century Dutch history. Others may find it slow and convoluted.