Reviewed by Jade Lee
The interweaving of the personal, political and historical in such a way that engages the reader is a difficult feat to pull off convincingly in a novel. The fact that Elleke Boehmer manages this so seamlessly, is thanks in large part to the depth of her characters, especially Ella. Ella is engaging because she is believable in all her idiosyncratic strengths and oddities. She is a child caught between two broken people; an angry, thwarted father, embittered by what he sees as Europe’s moral decay, and a mother in a state of constant anxiety and mourning for Holland, and the dead sister whose husband she ultimately married.
It would be easy to characterize the parents, Har and Irene as monsters and in many ways this is precisely what they are. Har is an angry drunk harassing the night with his war stories and racist views on the ‘black ghouls’ of Africa and their inability to rule themselves. Ella, though named after his beloved first wife, is treated with disappointment, anger and at times disgust. As a child he rails against her ‘open-mouthed’ gaze and ‘undaughterly’ expression, and as she grows older, takes her divergence from his own rigid worldview as a personal slight. He scorns what he sees as the moral degradation of Europe and the Netherlands in particular, and believes his has ‘survived in Africa because I’ve lived exclusively on this southernmost edge. Here alone we old colonials can rebuild the white republic.’
Irene, for her part, inflicts much of her own neuroses on the child, insisting on her physical and mental delicateness to such a degree that Ella ends up enrolled in a remedial class until the class teacher realizes she can read fluently and places her back in mainstream schooling. She fills their house with relics of a Holland her husband holds in supreme disgust and lives for her bi-annual trips home despite the fact she is paralyzed by a severe fear of flying.
As anyone who has lived amongst the angry and the broken can attest to, they are still people. And people are rarely if ever two dimensional monsters. Har is lost in a world that appears to have little use for him. One night he invites several English acquaintances over, assuming that this will be the beginning of some kind of colonial camaraderie, only for the same men to find him extreme and to ultimately cold shoulder him in public. He rails against his wife for drinking coffee with an African employee, but ultimately becomes attached to Phineas, their garden ‘boy’- incapable as he is of forming relationships with either his daughter or wife. He is an angry Dutchman insistent upon the use of English in his home who, nevertheless, affirms that Ella, ‘accidental child of your father’s old age … you’re a true original … A person for a new country, neither completely African nor completely European.’ People do not break neatly and Boehmer eloquently captures the ugly and complicated points of fracture that make up Ella’s father.
Ella grows up in a cloud of mourning, underneath the portrait of her dead aunt; the namesake her father frequently calls for during his nightly vigils and the mother invokes in the midst of her neurotic crises. Ella, who her father labels ‘obstreperous’ and her mother medicates against wakefulness with tranquilizers prescribed for her own anxiety, is a strange, resilient child who maps out a world of her own through imagination and the poems and stories she ultimately escapes through and into. Boehmer manages to capture the limited, fanciful scope of a child’s perspective and the way they conceive of their world. On the trips to Holland, for all her father’s scorn for Africa and Africans, Ella is drawn to the expanse of the continent beyond their airport stops. She thinks about ‘all that Africa out there, the huge unsinkable bulk of the continent.’ Boehmer further enforces this link when Ella first discovers writing as a means of escape during one of her mother’s airborne panic attacks. The first piece of fiction the child attempts is not a description of the European theatre of war her father recounts incessantly, but the story of a Senegalese girl called Mali who decides to swim from Africa to Europe. Tellingly, the story is only abandoned when the parents employ Phineas whom Ella becomes infatuated with. Later in life, the narrative voice suggests that given Har’s insistence on his daughter’s alien nature, her disappointing moral (and according to her mother) physical weakness, it is no wonder that Ella aligns herself, however clumsily at first, with the other group upon whom her father pours equal scorn; black Africans.
This to me is the primary reason why the interweaving of history and family runs seamlessly through the novel: It is not the result of some contrived political awakening but the result of intimate, personal interactions in the home. Ella’s fantasies of joining Phineas in the townships, of protesting with other children her age is, as much as anything, a wish to align herself with forces diametrically opposed to her father, to create a sense of community, of belonging. Ella only becomes alienated from Phineas when he aligns himself with her father. Whilst Har and Irene fight a war of attrition with a continent they cannot change or escape, Ella is ‘high on the rim of the African shield, on the shoulder of the land, the great continent…hefts up from the deep-blue Indian Ocean… has a garden that feels magical.’ The language Boehmer uses to describe Africa, whether Ella’s garden in Durban or the view from her cross-continent flights, is rich varied and full of possibility. Even when the landscape is essentially hostile such as when Irene’s dog is nearly carried off by a bird of prey, Ella is drawn to rather than terrified by it.
Alongside Boehmer’s rich language and nuanced characterization, is her use of structure. The more traditional bildungsroman format is bookended with the adult Ella’s attempt to repatriate herself to the Netherlands after her sheltering of political dissidents in South Africa. Here, even from the grave, her father’s bitterness; his disavowal of his daughter’s very sense of self hampers this attempt. It also stops the book from becoming a straightforward, overly simplistic story of an individual’s victory over hardship.
Like the book’s portrayal of South Africa, the story is circular. It is layered and nuanced; it is a song of possibility, longing and grief that continually loops back upon itself making new words out of the stories of the past. Like any excellent book it both speaks to the specificity of its historical and geographical location and to the broader nature of human relationships and belonging.
Jade Lee is a first year PhD student at SOAS researching the Colonial Archive, especially with regards to the women of the Colonial Service in the last decade of the British Empire. In her spare time, she likes to relax by reading, doing pilates and teaching primary school children three days a week.