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Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Violent and brooding story comprehensively researched and superbly constructed. (Review by Keith Millar)

André Brink has written over 60 books. He is a major literary figure in South Africa and is a celebrated master of his craft. So, as you would expect, Philida is an expertly written story that is comprehensively researched and superbly constructed.

This novel, which has been long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, is set in the early 1830’s in the Cape Colony just before slavery was abolished. Philida is a household slave at Zandvleit, the wine farm owned by Cornelis Brink. He is a violent slave owner who believes that nothing works better with a slave or a child than a good thrashing. Philida has a secret love affair with Brink’s son, Francois, and bears him four children. Two of the children die, one tragically at her own hand.

For financial and social reasons, it is arranged for Francios to marry the daughter of a prominent Cape Town family. As a result, he reneges on his promise to Philida to set her free and acknowledge her children as his own. Philida lodges a complaint against Frans with the Slave Protector in Stellenbosch.

To avoid further scandal, Cornelis Brinks takes Philida to the town of Worcester where she is sold by auction to another slave owner. Here she meets a carpenter called Labyn who eventually converts her to Islam. Together they embark on a long journey to the banks of the Gariep (Orange) River where Philida at last finds peace and freedom.

The book is largely based on specific historical fact. The Brink family in the story were ancestors of André Brink. Philida was an actual slave women. As such, it is an accurate and atmospheric record of life in the Cape at that time. It is only when the story moves to Worcester that the author relies more on his imagination. Also woven into the story are the myths and earthy folklore of the time.

Philida is a violent and brooding story. It is interspersed with many graphic accounts of floggings, rapes, hangings, castrations, slave ships and even skin-peeling. All this serves as a powerful indictment of the cruel oppression of the era. However, shining through all this is Philida’s bravery and her determination to find her freedom and purpose in life. And this is what makes it a compelling and memorable tale.

Philida is published by Harvill Secker – ISBN 978-1-84655-705-7 and retails at R215. – Keith Millar