I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book. It’s publication date is May 7, 2019. All opinions are my own.
Let’s start with the positives. This novel is set in South Africa and the Boer War plays a major role in it. A good portion of the book is set during the Boer War and specifically in the Bloemfontein Concentration Camp in 1901 where the English imprisoned many Afrikaaners (mostly women and children) during the war. I knew very little about the Boer War before beginning this book and everything I’d read previously was from the English or Canadian perspective and approached it as a blip of history, nothing too bad. In fact, this was one of the first uses of concentration camps and while they weren’t technically death camps, many died in them due to illness. Homes and livelihoods were destroyed and the repercussions are long-lasting (as the book explores).
This section of the book is told from the perspective of Sarah, a young woman who has been imprisoned with her six-year-old son Fred after her husband leaves them to fight the English. The section takes the form of letters written to her husband following his departure and initially, I hated it. I don’t generally enjoy epistolary-style novels and I especially hate them when the writer (Sarah in this case) spends time describing things the reader (her own husband of nine years) would obviously know. She doesn’t need to describe what their son looks like or how things work on their farm. He only left a week ago! She doesn’t need to tell him in great detail about the beginning of their relationship; he was there! He probably remembers!
However, as her story progresses, the style feels more honest because she is in fact telling him things he doesn’t know. Added to this the tension of being in the camp and the unknown of what will happen to her and Fred and I found myself wanting to keep reading.
Then the story quickly changes. We jump to 1976 and then follow Rayna, her daughter Irma, and Irma’s son Willem through to 2010 when Willem is sent to a boot camp outside of Johannesburg. I was disappointed to leave Sarah’s story behind and here it felt like Barr was trying to cram a lot in. We get thirty-five years of history in a couple hundred pages. And South Africa has a lot of history in those years. Honestly, if I didn’t have a basic understanding of apartheid in South Africa, I would have been lost. Willem is born in 1994, the day Nelson Mandela was elected as president and while the novel mentions the chaos of the day and the election, it tells us nothing about what that means or why. Instead, the emphasis on the Boer War and its after effects makes it seem like the conflict between English and Afrikaans is the only ill will in the country.
For me, Part Two just didn’t have the pull of Part One. In trying to involve more characters, none of them ever quite become fully fleshed. Irma in particular feels most like a stereotype and Willem, who we follow the closest, never feels complete. There are hints at who he is but it’s like the novel doesn’t want to fully reveal him to us.
I also had a problem with the conclusion. There is (obviously) a connection between the characters in part one and part two that isn’t quite a twist. (Not sure if it’s trying to be.) In the end, it seems like the novel wants part one to offer an excuse for the violence of part two. I wish instead that we could have seen the conclusion of Sarah’s story, instead of simply being told. I would much rather have heard it in her own words. Even if she was telling it to her husband.