This opens on the day of Beauty's funeral in Cemetery NY5 in Gugulethu. Best friend Amanda watches the casket being lowered into wet concrete to prevent grave robbers from making off with the valuable wood. She muses as she watches the face of Beauty's mother, burying her grown child: "God knew the African woman was going to have a very, very hard life. That is why He gave her skin as tough as Mother Earth herself. He gave her that tough, timeless skin so that her woes would not be written all over her face, so that her face would not be a map to her torn and tattered heart."
Yet grief shines through, as it always will, and this novel explores the impact of that grief on Beauty's surviving four friends, led by Amanda.
Known as the Five Firm Friends, the other group members are Edith, Cordelia and Doris. The story centres mainly on Amanda, with the others being somewhat undeveloped. The group is referred to in the novel as FFF, which I found hard to take. We have enough political acronyms in this country, and surely a more creative way could have been found to refer to the friends? I kept thinking "Freedom Front Party" as I read FFF - surely not the author's intention.
The narrative weaves between the present - the funeral - and the months after the funeral, and also stretches back to a time just a few months before when Beauty's illness first becomes apparent.
She arrives for a lunch party sporting bruised lips. Her friends immediately assume that Hamilton, her womanising, abusive husband, has had a go at her yet again, but this time, Hamilton is innocent. It's the first sign of the Aids that will see her reduced to a skeleton and finally die just two months later. As her mother will proclaim at Beauty's funeral: "We hardly had time to get used to the fact that she was ill before she was gone. She was stolen away from us."
At first Hamilton, who clearly infected his wife, described as being faithful, won't even tell the friends that Beauty is sick. Then he bans them all from seeing her, except Amanda, who watches her best friend die. Amanda remains grateful that her own husband, Zakes, is faithful to her, and isn't going to infect her with Aids. His only flaw is drinking at the shebeen, "but that was the case with most men she knew. It was a male thing."
This introduces the theme of less-than-perfect, philandering husbands. While Amanda will take her Zakes any day of the week, Cordelia and Edith have their own problems in their marriages.
Edith's husband won't let her wear pants part of a larger problem of wielding absolute control in the relationship, while Cordelia becomes increasingly estranged from hers.
Yet Beauty's death is also her gift, and at yet another gathering the friends decide that they will not have sex with their husbands again until each has taken an HIV test. Only Doris is still unmarried, engaged to Selby, both virgins when they met.
As they discuss the predicaments facing many African women, bemoaning the fact that so many African men seem to be philanderers, Cordelia adds that "The love the African man has for the children is in making those children, not raising them. When it comes to raising the children, he does the disappearing act." And yet these friends' insistence on bucking the trends, being independent and going against the grain of tradition brings the worms out of the wood. Infidelities will out; husbands - and fiancés - are not what they appear to be.
Essentially, this novel serves as a vehicle to deliver a message. The author is making a point about Aids and about women's need to protect themselves from a disease that will rob them of their youthful lives. Characters serve, again, as a vehicle in which to move the story forward. Only Amanda feels fully developed a strong, sassy, determined mother, wife and teacher by profession.
Beauty never quite emerges from the shadows and Doris, Cordelia and Edith are equally shadowy.
Magona raises important points here about the Aids pandemic that is decimating the country and filling up graveyards, creating countless orphans.
Blame seems to be laid at the hands of men who can't control themselves, and this seems rather facile. While it's true that women must demand their independence and rights, and protect themselves, the schism between the sexes that is laid bare in this book feels unnatural.
Magona shines a light on a number of issues - and I congratulate her for doing so - but I must question whether this novel is the right place. For my money there just isn't enough characterisation to move the plot along or maintain interest in the characters, the bedrock of any literary novel.