Philida by Andre Brink

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Philida by Andre Brink

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A compelling look at slavery in South Africa just prior to the emancipation enforced by the British during the 1830s. Philida provides an intriguing insight into the heritage, attitudes and emotions of all the parties as well as a feel for the times; a fine example of history, alive and personalised.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846557040

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Philida falls in love with Frans, the son of Cornelis Brink and they have four children together creating a tragedy on two counts: only two children survive and their love is troubled. For this is South Africa in 1830 and Philida is only the Brinks' 'knit girl': a slave specialising in the family's knitting.

Frans talks of buying Philida shoes and only freed slaves wear shoes therefore she assumes he must be promising her freedom in order to legitimise their relationship through marriage. Sadly the freedom doesn't materialise, in fact Janna (Frans' step-mother) arranges for him to view a local heiress who would be a good match politically whilst ensuring the family's financial future. Philida, seeing the way the wind is blowing, complains to the Protector of Slaves about Frans breach of promise. However, Frans and Cornelis also have their tales to tell and, for them, the reasoning behind their stand is perfectly logical.

Andre Brink has a bursting back catalogue which includes two Man Booker shortlist nominations (Before I Forget and Praying Mantis) to join this nominated hopeful. He's soaked in the story of South Africa, not only writing about it but also being part of a group of human rights activists in the 1960s, using Afrikaans to speak out against apartheid. That was notably brave and in Philida he demonstrates courage of a different kind by drawing attention to his own family tree. Philida isn't just a revealing piece of fiction; it's a novel written around an episode from his own ancestry; an episode that doesn't show his family in that good a light. Having said that, it's written with such honesty and fairness to all concerned that even though we may not agree with the morals or underlying ideas, we're in no doubt of the applied logic of the time, which layers on an extra dimension of interest.

The injustice of slavery is there, clearly dripping from the lifestyle and the methods of treatment. However, using alternating viewpoint chapters to good effect, Andre permits us access to his characters, or rather his ancestors', minds along with the thought processes and vivid descriptions of daily life.

Both slaves and slave owners are tethered to the land; the slaves via generations of folktales and bondage and their owners by assumed ownership. Nobody in the novel is either totally good or totally bad, just a product (or victim) of the culture. Cornelis himself, for instance, isn't unfeeling (demonstrated by his custom of leaving empty chairs around the table in memory of his dead children) but this coexists with a raging temper and total control over lives that he sees as vermin or in need of his control.

Philida accepts a certain amount of punishment as her lot, even using the palate of pain to describe the sky as a kind of bruise blue. In fact her acceptance is such that when she does complain to the British tribunal, it's because of Frans not doing anything to formalise their love not because of the inhumane treatment inflicted on her. Interestingly, Philida isn't the victim one would expect under the circumstances. As the story progresses, her power increases until… you'll see.

For his part, Frans does love her but he must live in the real world. Fully dependant on Cornelis and his overbearing, overweight step-mother, Janna (or lump as Cornelis refers to her) he must toe the line no matter how deceitful it appears even though there is slave blood in the Brinks' own lineage of which no one dares speak.

You'll be swept into a brutal world of contradiction given all the more depth if you can temporarily shed 21st century expectations and conditioning. Andre Brink takes us to a place where Christianity mixes with superstition and stylised Islam. A place where the British aim to bring regulated kindness by stipulating the maximum number of lashes to parts of the body but permitting endless punishment to other anatomical areas by omissions in the legislation. A place where the preparation for emancipation brings as much fear to the captor as it does release to the captive. Indeed, this is a place where the culture may seem alien but, thanks to the author's skill and openness, we see that people, their drive for survival and innate need to protect family hasn't changed at all.

I would like to thank Harvill Secker for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this, then we suggest one of his earlier works The Blue Door.

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Buy Philida by Andre Brink at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Philida by Andre Brink at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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Booklists.jpg Philida by Andre Brink is in the Man Booker Prize 2012.


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