A distinguished new voice from South Africa writes about a white working-class Afrikaner family with a shameful secret as the end of Apartheid draws near.
Poor, ill-educated, and dependent on government handouts, the Benade family moved in to Johannesburg in the 1930s, when drought and the Depression ended their farming. Recruited to do the grunt work of policing apartheid and manning the railroads, they were rewarded with housing and a protected white status. But the Benades—Pop, Mol, Treppie, and young Lambert—who live in Triomf, built on the rubble of the legendary Sophiatown, are, by 1993 and story’s opening, cynical about politics. They also fear black rule, and, as they prepare for Lambert’s 40th birthday, the same month as the upcoming election that will end Apartheid, they make half-hearted preparations to flee north. But the family is so dysfunctional and volatile that most of their enterprises end badly. Treppie, scarred by a childhood beating, provokes quarrels; Pop is well-meaning but ailing; Mol is worn out from sexually servicing all three men; and Lambert, an epileptic, is mentally ill. The three older Benades are in fact siblings with a secret: Lambert is their son. No one is sure who the father is—the incest began in childhood, and Lambert has been told that Pop and Mol are his parents. In 1994, as election and birthday near, they comment mordantly on the politicians, and Lambert, who’s been promised a woman, makes a list of things to do—including an attempt to clean the kitchen, which ends in an explosion. Nothing ever goes right, yet a redemptive affection allows the Benades to survive death, revelations, even the establishment of a black government.
A remarkably evocative portrayal of the usually ignored white underclass: the best post-apartheid novel yet.