Shifting Colours by Fiona Sussman

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Shifting Colours by Fiona Sussman

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Separated by apparently well-meaning whites and half a world in distance, a black South African mother and her young daughter struggle with the result of one decision and two aggressive cultures. This is touching, insightful, profoundly affecting and very, very special.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 350 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Allison & Busby
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0749016418

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Celia works as a maid for the Steiners in South Africa; a safe job in a white household for a 'black' to have at a time when the country lurches from suspicion to brutality and back again. At least it was a safe job. The Steiners have decided to move to England and, after difficulty in having their own children, want to adopt Miriam, Celia's youngest child. For so many reasons Celia can't refuse. Rita Steiner promises Miriam an exciting adventure and she promises Celia regular contact. When mother and daughter are miles apart, they both come to realise the same thing: sometimes promises are only as good as the people making them and that goes for promised lands too.

South African author and GP Fiona Sussman may now live in New Zealand but she grew up in the apartheid-ridden era of her homeland and so witnessed the horror and inhumanity that goes hand-in-hand with the outrage of deeming part of society to be lesser beings.

The title of Shifting Colours is a clever pun, written with a subtlety that allows the events to hit us rather than run us over with hyped-up prose. In this way we alternate our view between Celia and Miriam viewing their life through the lens of, initially, an innocent bright 5-year-old. Once we begin on Celia's chapters, nothing seems quite so innocent again as we realise the connotations that even lie behind a child's version.

The Steiners may ask Celia for their daughter but Rita, at least, assumes she won't say no. The unspoken sub-text is that she's asking one possession to hand over another so that it can amuse her and fill a void.

We continue to follow mother and daughter once they're a world apart and South Africa disintegrates further. Miriam grows up in a free nation of equality where apartheid isn't institutionalised. However, the England of the 60s, 70s and 80s has an accepted sub-culture of xenophobia (which some would argue remains today), connecting it to some degree with the land in which she was born. She too has to learn to live with the pain inflicted on the weaker by those who should know better and not assign a designation based on the colour of her skin rather than the colour of her achievements and personality.

As you'll probably gather, this is incredibly powerful stuff with shocks, surprises and tears as each of the two seeks to replace the love that's missing. It's not off-putting though, in fact it defies us to put it down. (I read it in one very intense sitting.) We're taken on a journey of empathy that doesn't let us go and includes uplifting moments as well as smiles. I found myself laughing (and agreeing) with young Miriam's summation of M&S ready meals for instance.

We can never expect to know how societal exclusion accompanied by mental and/or physical cruelty feels unless we've lived it personally. However, occasionally a talent pushes the door ajar to allow us a glimpse resulting in an almost-comprehension. Fiona Sussman has such a talent and I therefore commend this novel to you whole heartedly.

(Thank you so much Allison & Busby for providing us with a copy for review. We also have a review of The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman.)

Further Reading: If this appeals, then spend some time in the company of another great South African talent with Disgrace by J M Coetzee.

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Buy Shifting Colours by Fiona Sussman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Shifting Colours by Fiona Sussman at


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