An early-1980s South African novel about a female slave living in a tree receives American publication three decades after it was written.
Written in Afrikaans by a prolific playwright and poet (The Wisdom of Water, 2007, etc.), this belated appearance will likely attract most attention due to its translator, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Coetzee (who translated the work in 1983). It’s a densely detailed novella, without chapters or named characters, narrated by a female slave who has passed through various owners and who plays chronological hopscotch while blurring the lines among reality, dreams and imagination. “My dreams fill me and help me eat time,” she says. “It no longer matters to me that I cannot neatly dispose of time and store it away and preferably forget it; for now I perceive that dreaming and waking do not damn each other, but are extensions of each other and flow into each other.” Thus, there’s a hallucinatory quality to the narrative, addressed to an unknown reader by a writer that reader only knows through what she reveals, some of which she dreams. “Only when I am asleep do I fully know who I am,” she says, “for I reign over my dreamtime and occupy my dreams contentedly. At such times I am necessary to myself.” As she moves from the tree in which she has come to live through her memories of the past, she tells of how she was sold into slavery, how her sexual attractiveness gave her some power, negated by her ultimate powerlessness, how babies she birthed were taken away from her, and how she ultimately ended up on an expedition that led to a slaughter that led to her home in a tree. The result is a meditation on humanity, mortality and time.
A challenging, compelling work for readers who are willing to give it the concentration it demands.