Illustration: Clifford Harper/Agraphia.co.uk.
Alex Clark admires André Brink’s Booker-longlisted family history of Cape Colony slave owners.
“What on earth will become of us in this godforsaken land?” wonders the freed slave Petronella, as she surveys Zandvliet, the wine farm in the Cape Colony where she still lives with the family that formerly owned her. “It is not just a matter of mothers and fathers. It starts with us, with those who don’t want to know where they come from and where they fit in and who they are. Each one goes on looking for his own shadow that lies trampled into the dust and left to lie there. We have more than enough lost shadows among us.”
It’s quite understandable that “Ouma Nella”, as she is more frequently called, focuses on disrupted identities and confusing chains of lineage while she ponders a figurative and literal landscape about to be radically altered by the end of slavery. Her previous history is recounted early on in the book. She herself is her one-time master’s mother; when Cornelis Brink’s father was banished from the marital bed, he simply – albeit with much begging the Lord for forgiveness – availed himself of one of the human beings in his possession, tacitly absorbing any resulting issue into his legitimate family. Her son, Cornelis, in what he thinks of as gratitude, has manumitted Ouma Nella and she occupies a curiously intimate and invulnerable position in his household.
Those paying attention will have realised that one of the characters mentioned thus far appears to have something in common with the author of this Booker-longlisted novel. Cornelis, André Brink explains in an appendix at the end of the book, was the brother of one of his direct ancestors, and the story of Philida, a slave on his farm, is rooted in specific historical fact that has been blended with Brink’s imaginings of life in the Cape – or the Caab – in the 1820s and 1830s, immediately prior to the emancipation of the slaves on 1 December 1834. It is an impressively nuanced and ambiguous piece of work, and its strength lies in the delicate understanding of subtle shifts in power in the Cape Colony’s teetering ecosystem.