Sophomore novel from South African writer Bonert (The Lion Seeker, 2013) exploring the turbulent closing years of the apartheid regime.
Martin Helger is a teenage mess. As one of the band of neighborhood kids who torments him says, “You don’t have any friends. You can’t do sports.…You don’t have really much personality, hey, I mean admit.” He’s different, a working-class Jew in a world of segregation and separation, and he’ll certainly never measure up to his brother, Marcus, who’s graduated from high school and has disappeared somewhere in the front lines of war, missing in action and likely dead. A spot of hope comes into his life in the form of an American whirlwind, “a serious beauty” named Annie Goldberg, who’s come to live with the Helgers while teaching African children in a township school. Annie smolders at the injustice of apartheid, and Martin falls under her spell even as the state security forces begin to clamp down on the anti-apartheid movement. It doesn’t take long before the violence begins to mount, and then, one by one, Martin’s friends and family begin to leave the stage, with only a very bad Afrikaaner cop to suggest a way out. Until, that is, Marcus returns; as it turns out, he has been an elite fighter all along and is now tangled up in a scheme meant to destroy the anti-apartheid cause once and for all. “Violence works,” he says. “S’why they cane you from the start.” Drawing on real events in recent South African history, Bonert unfolds a sometimes-crawling plot that threatens now and again to veer into Frederick Forsyth territory, though it’s embedded in an eminently literary character study that explores a Jewish community whose elders are deeply reluctant to take part in the struggle—“Our job as Jews is to take care of Jews!” shouts Martin’s father—but who, as always and everywhere, are swept up in the chaos.
Chaim Potok meets Leon Uris: a solid if overlong portrait of violence and renewal.