By André Brink

(Harvil Secker, R215 )

Antjie Krog’s introductory quote – I am/ God knows/ a free f*****g woman – gives an idea of what is to come in this dense novel.

The Afrikaans version has the subtitle Slaweroman, which is omitted with the English translation. But it is a novel about slavery and – quite a favourite topic of Brink’s – women exploited and maltreated by heartless (white) men.

Upon visiting the farm Solms Delta in the Drakenstein Valley, the author discovered information on Philida, a slave who was owned by one Cornelis Brink, a brother of his own direct forbear, which triggered this novel.

Set in the time leading up to the abolition of slavery (on December 1, 1834), the reader is (sometimes at great lengths) brought into the harrowing circumstances of slaves, the intrigues and secrets of families and the conniving moves people always seem to be busy with.

The story kicks off in a first person narrative when, after a long walk, Philida arrives from Zandvliet at the Drostdy in Stellenbosch to lodge a complaint to the Slave Protector against her owner Cornelis Brink and his son Francois Gerhardus. Young Frans reneged on his promise of buying her and their childrens’ freedom.

“Here comes shit. Just one look and I can see it coming,” Philida thinks when she is about to meet the Grootbaas.

In what unfortunately reads more like Pidgin English than a local patois Brink tried to recreate in the Afrikaans version, Philida, the knitting girl in the household, recounts what her life has been like up to this moment.

“It’s not much of a life I had at Zandvliet, with the beatings and the knitting and the working day and night and always doing what other people tell you to do and everything else. But it’s all I got, it’s all I am and all I can ever be. It’s my whole blarry life.”

In her deposition Philida claims that she and young Frans Brink “made” four children, but in the official sources only three children are listed.

Another fact that intrigued the author is that she might have done something to the firstborn to save him from a life of slavery.

Following the orders of his father, Frans denies ever having had relations with Philida and his word is accepted above hers.

Old Cornelis wants his son to marry the rich Maria Berrangé from Oranjezicht in the Caab whose dowry might save Zandvliet from bankruptcy and Philida and her blond children are unwanted on the farm.

It is a noted fact that Philida and her two children (another died due to illness) were sold three months after this complaint.

Ironically enough, Philida is the offspring of a Berrangé dominee who couldn’t keep his hands off Farieda from Malabar. Philida was saved from a grisly fate and then reared by Ouma Nella from Bengal, who again is actually the mother of Cornelis Brink.

Good intrigue with detailed sex and cruelties thrown in and Brink at his best with the love story of Philida and Frans as the central theme. Philida also has a cat, Kleinkat, which is itself a character, but one to whom Philida’s affection sometimes seem a bit too strong for a mother who struggles to survive with two small children.

In the first part the chapters (with Victorian explanatory headings) are in the narrative voices of Philida, Francois, Ouman Cornelis and Ouma Nella. At times all the detail feels like plodding through a load of research, but you do stay involved with the story.

The most recurrent (sometimes overworked) metaphors are of knitting and shadows. “I am a piece of knitting that is knitted by someone else,” she says in the beginning. Toward the end of the book she starts knitting in colours and finds pleasure in unravelling mistakes.

“Every stitch is just where it must be.” Ouma Nella tells Philida that your shadow is like “your story” and her fear was that “they” want to cut her shadow from her.

The second part starts with the auction at Worcester (February 1833), and the narrative voice shifts to the third person.

Brink also mentions in his acknowledgements that up to the point of the auction he tried to keep strictly to available sources. After that he had “no choice but to rely on his imagination”, but was supported by records of that period at the Cape.

Philida, when with her new, kinder, owner Bernabé de la Bat, is converted to Islam by Labyn, the carpenter. When they are freed, they decide to go to the Gariep. Through the Bokkeveld they get a ride with Cupido Cockroach from Praying Mantis (2005).

“In many respects his story paved the way of this book,” Brink states.

Another familiar character who reappears is Galant, who led the slave uprising in 1825 and featured in A Chain of Voices (1983). (Brink on Brink?) De la Bat takes Labyn and Philida to see Galant’s head still on a pole at Houd-den-Bek where the slave revolt took place and was subdued.

In the last part, Philida’s own voice returns. This is the chapter “in which everything unravels and comes together again”.

When they get to the Great Gariep she says to Labyn, “I am here. I, Philida of the Caab. This I that is free. The I who was a slave and who now is free, who is a woman, and who is everything”.

Brink gets back at his critics after he had won the substantial Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace grant for his proposal of Philida.

In a petty and downright nasty way he repeatedly refers (in the text!) to the fat sow Hamboud (Joan Hambidge) and hen Zelda (Jongbloed) who cackles about others’ eggs in the farmyard.

One wonders who else he got back at with some stereotypical caricatures (like the fat stepmother that is forever spilling over the sofa)? It is almost a relief that the real ogre in the story is a Brink.