False River by Dominique Botha (Umuzi 2013)


IF YOU have fond remembrances of growing up on a farm in rural South Africa during apartheid, do not miss Botha’s poignant debut novel, False River.

Breyten Breytenbach, a well-known South African writer who went into exile in France after marrying a Vietnamese woman during those years, describes Botha as “worthily taking her place among the living and the dead writing the stories that make us”.

I agree with him.

Botha grew up on a farm in the Viljoenskroon district of the Free State in the 1970s and 1980s with her parents and her four siblings – the most significant of which is her rebellious older brother Paul.

Even though the book is a novel, it is based on true events in the author’s life.

The story describes her rural upbringing, her relationship with Paul and their life with parents opposed to apartheid.

Much of the book is dedicated to descriptions of Paul, his life, his talent for poetry, his problems with drugs, his attempted suicide and, ultimately, his death in London.

The dialogue in the book is typical of quarrelling siblings but is also testimony to Botha’s love and admiration for her brother. Anyone with siblings would be able to relate.

“Paul put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer to him. ‘You also need a change of scenery. It might help you get over that brainless frat boy you are wasting away over,’ he said, turning the music down. ‘I am not.’ I blushed in the darkness. I stayed sitting up against him.”

Botha tries her hand successfully at poetry and finishes the book with a poem dedicated to her late brother.

She has a command and depth of language that lends itself to vivid descriptions and an authentic story of life on a Free State farm.

Even if you did not grow up on a farm, the story will enrich your life because of its South African authenticity.

The story gives away some of the politics of the time and Botha remembers a visit from late struggle veteran Oliver Tambo to their farm.

One is moved by the Bothas’ standing in their community – the children are instructed, for example, by their mother to use the separate, blacks-only side of the bottle store.

The book is available in both Afrikaans and English and demands a basic understanding of Afrikaans even if purchased in English. Words such as slapgat, bliksem, vleispasteitjies and koeksisters are difficult to translate and have the most effect when used in Afrikaans.