With its South African connection, Brasfield’s first strains to link the days of Apartheid with a mother’s paranoia and a daughter’s difficulty with men.
Starting in 1995 and moving back to the ’60s and ’70s, the story begins as Kate, working in Ohio, receives a letter from her mother, Agatha, saying that she has cancer and wants to see her. Kate, in her early 40s, has just broken up with Simon, the third fiancé she’s split with, and decides—especially after she can’t get through to her mother and nobody knows where she is—that she’d better travel to South Africa. Agatha’s letter is filled with the paranoia that Kate now feels is what made her untrusting of men—as in Agatha’s still insisting that Oom Piet, her Afrikaner brother-in-law, is out to harm her. Once in South Africa, Kate both begins looking for Agatha and recalling her own past. She remembers her 11th birthday, in 1966, the day her father collapsed and died—and how Agatha, soon after, insisted they change their names and move to Durban, where Oom Piet couldn’t find them. In Durban, Agatha became physically abusive and even more paranoid, suspecting Kate’s school friends of being enemies—hardly easy for Kate, excellent student though she was. During high school, exhausted by her mother’s bizarre behavior, Kate left home, though she now learns that Agatha’s paranoia may have been based partly in real events. Her mother, she learns, may have had an affair with Winston, the family gardener and an underground freedom fighter, and Oom Piet may have murdered Winston, in 1966, while the latter was in police custody. Knowing more, Kate is ready to forgive.
Powerful writing—descriptions of Agatha’s illness, say—still doesn’t energize Brasfield’s narrative or bring psychological depth to her stubbornly thin characters. Settings, too, feel insistently more synthetic than resonant: an ambitious debut but far from perfected.