What a fresh book!
I read a lot of Canadian fiction.
That is not a complaint, but I do miss other-worldly perspectives. Philida by Andre Brink was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. The book is set in the 1820s and 1830s in South Africa. I quickly learned that this was a pivotal time in South Africa’s history, because of the colonial power shift from the Dutch to the British.
Philida is a slave who works as a knitting girl on a Dutch plantation. She is also the lover of her boss’ son Frans and the mother of four of his children.
Philida is special. Even before the British took over the colony, she held an intrinsic sense of self-worth and dignity. She had feelings for Frans, but only because she was treated as an equal by him.
Frans turns into a big fat jerk and decides to sell Philida and his children.
There is more to the story, too. The British set a date, in advance, when slavery will be outlawed in the cape colony (by 1834). This has intense social implications for the Dutch settlers and the African slaves that have been working for them for generations.
I loved this book because it explores the link between freedom and individuality. With the promise of freedom, Philida turns from a person who lets things happen to her, into someone with agency.
I also loved this book because of the strength of Brink’s writing. The prose is humourous, his characters full of tongue in cheek one liners. And his characters have fun little names like Willempie.
Brink is also insightful, he lays out the complexity of slave and plantation just as it is breaking down.
The most impressive though, is that the novel is based on historical records that Brink has pieced together from his own family tree.
The book has strength, it has a soul. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary, historical fiction.