Politically engaged characters experience life after apartheid in Van Wyk’s debut novel.
Van Wyk, who grew up in South Africa, firmly grasps the country’s history. The novel seems to waver between fiction and nonfiction and follows two families: One is black and one white, and they have worked side by side for generations on the farm Vergenoeg. Not far into the novel, 65-year-old Andries Mokwebo, a black farmhand, takes legal action against his white employer, Fanie Botha, for rights to the farm. The legal action comes at a time when the country is readily redistributing white-owned farmland to blacks. Andries wants the land so he can secure his teenage son Sephiwe’s financial future, yet he suspects that his actions are unfair to his employer, a good man. Sephiwe, one of the novel’s most believable characters, can understand the moral complexities with which his father and Fanie are grappling, but he’s more interested in his own intellectual curiosities (he muses, “the mystery surrounding the motion of the heavenly bodies serene in its being”) than in his father’s problems. The second narrative arc is about a love affair between a young black, female farmhand, Nandi, and her employer’s son, Koos. Both stories hold interest—at least at first—but the novel stagnates due to long and too frequent exchanges about politics, which are forced and inauthentic. From the relatively uneducated Andries, readers see dialogue like this: “For us all to survive in South Africa and for that matter in Africa, the problems we are faced with must become our collective national challenge. That is the only route for us to take, to save Africa, our fatherland.” Does anybody really talk like this to other family members around the dinner table? The story also often lacks spontaneity because Van Wyk tells too much and shows too little.
A well-thought-out narrative made richer by Van Wyk’s opinions and knowledge and poorer by one-dimensional characters and a predictable plot.