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Expatriate Eprile (Temporary Sojourner, stories, 1989) revisits his homeland’s apartheid years, detailing all its horrors in a first novel that seems more a collection of set-pieces than an absorbing narrative with compelling characters.

Narrator Paul Sweetbread, a Jewish South African, claims to have a “picture-perfect memory,” but we soon see that total recall has been a poisoned gift. In the first section, which covers the years 1968–87, Paul recounts his childhood in a white Johannesburg suburb, where he attended a public school that taught a slanted history of the country’s race relations. His father, who owned a pest-control business, died in their black maid’s room when Paul was still in school: he may have been having an affair with her, he may have committed suicide, or he may have miscalculated the amount of poison he was using to fumigate her room. Whatever the cause, Paul is soon seeing Dr. Vish in hokily described therapy sessions, as he tries to understand Dad. In book two (1987–89), Paul recalls how he left university when he was drafted and found himself posted first to Namibia, where the South African army was fighting guerrillas, and then to Angola as part of a unit producing films intended to keep up white morale. He vividly depicts the brutal realities of this war and an especially vicious officer, Captain Lyddie, who re-enters his life in book three (1990–2000). Paul, recovering from post-traumatic stress, reveals to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Lyddie, ignoring a ceasefire, ordered his men to massacre homeward-bound black troops. Coming clean helps our hero adjust to the new South Africa, although he still has unfinished family business.

Paul never seems more than idea, dishing out pretentious allusions and strained insights rather than believable observations. Ambitious but flawed.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-393-05888-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2004