A ponderous debut details the Job-like sufferings of two young women (one black, one white) on a farm in apartheid South Africa of the 1970s.
The remote farm is in a border area targeted by guerillas. The owner is Ben Laurens, a recent arrival from England, but the focus is on his young bride Märit. A city girl who has just lost both parents, she worries about her ability to handle farm life. Far more self-confident is the 18-year-old Tembi, whose mother Grace is the maid. They live in the kraal with the farmworkers. Tembi is close to the earth; her secret garden contains seeds sent by her father, a gold miner. The land, described with a lulling reverence, is as much of the context here as apartheid. The first tragedy is the death of Grace, killed in a hit-and-run; next Ben is killed by a guerilla land-mine. Märit, needy and fearful, invites Tembi into her house and her bed, clinging to her for comfort. Then, in a barely credible makeover, she goes native (bare feet, a sarong, the works) and tells the farmworkers she is now the boss. Her authority is short-lived. All her cattle are stolen. As the land turns into a war zone, her black workers leave (but not the loyal Tembi), followed by her white neighbors. Locusts devour her vegetables. An itinerant black man, Khoza, fixes their pump, but can he be trusted? Märit, still the same hand-wringing lost soul, can’t decide whether to shoot him or sleep with him; her foolishness seriously upsets Tembi. A three-way tussle ends with the arrival of more visitors: first, white soldiers, then black soldiers on horseback, who conscript Khoza and Tembi. Märit, her house looted, her farm ravaged, drowns herself in the river.
First-novelist DeSoto does not allow the wretched Märit even an epiphany as he piles on with a vengeance. A dreary tale of plunder and loss, uninflected by humor or nuance.