09 March 2009

Pieternella - Daughter of Eva (Dalene Matthee)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

I was, perhaps, the only kid in my class who adored Fiela se Kind. Who sent her mom to buy her the English version not because she couldn’t be bothered to read it in its original Afrikaans, but because it was a pretty cool story. Who finished school and then, horror of horrors, read it again. Out of choice.

This is why the latest in the Dalene Matthee stable, Pieternella – Daughter of Eva, excited me so much. First published as Pieternella van die Kaap in 2000, it was translated into English in 2008 by Malcolm Hacksley, who I don’t know and have never heard of, but who must be an utter, utter genius.

The book, from cover to characters, plot to punchlines, setting to story, is exquisite. And much of it is true. Set in the 17th century, when the first white settlers arrived at The Cape of Good Hope, Pieternella introduces us to the realities of being mixed-race; of having a Goringhaicona mother and a Dutch father. She walks us through the corridors of The Dutch East India Company; she shows us its stranglehold on Robben Island, the isle of banishment.

And, all the while, we grow fonder and fonder of this strong-willed girl, and we will her to be happy. As she enters the frightening penal colony that is Mauritius. As she enters a premature marriage to what we hope will be a kind man. As she tries to manage her damaged brother, Solomon. As she bites her nails and prays that her children will not be born 'too brown'... We hold thumbs and hope along with her.


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