This novel is set during the time at the brink of freedom for the slaves whose lives are vividly and viscerally brought to life by Andre Brink. There is a scene late in the book where Floris, the slave, is about to be flogged and is being tied to the flogging bench, which is dark with the stains of blood from the slaves who have been flogged before him. Floris' "entire back and lean buttocks bear the dark criss-cross marks of old floggings." His master orders Labyn, another slave, to "tie it properly". However, Labyn refuses. "I shall have to say no to the Meester. That is not my work." Labyn draws his strength from his faith and the knowledge that in the coming months slaves will be freed. The Meester marches back inside his house, angry, and leaves Floris on the bench. He waits all night. By morning the gorans from Floris who has lain all night on the flogging bench have become "deeper and darker." In the morning the master orders him to be untied and says to his wife, "It's important for a slave to be reminded regularly of who is the Baas."
The book tells the story of Philida, a slave who was related to the author in real life. She worked as a knitting girl on a farm and had four children by her master's son, Francois. Philida was promised her freedom by Francois and complained to the Slave Protector in 1832 about his failure to keep his promise of giving her her freedom. She knows she is taking a huge risk, because: "slaves that went to complain with the whole law in their hands, and then afterwards, when they get back to their Baas, they get beaten to death or they get hanged upside down or they get starved to death." This action by Philida resulted in Francois' father Cornelius selling her. Around these historical facts Andre Brink has built a powerful story which looks at the relationship between Philida and Francois, and tries to find a reason for the fact that one of her four children is not mentioned as living in the Slave Rolls.
It is a challenging look at relationships, because the reader is asked to believe that Francois has a fondness for Philida, and that she submits willingly to have his children. Cornelius has a much more stereotypical relationship with his slaves. It is really quite hard to believe that Philida has any feelings for Francois, even though Brink tries, I think, to make that seem plausible.
Philida rescues a small cat, Kleinkat, from drowning, and this little cat is a motif for hope and survival.
Philida herself sees shoes as the ultimate symbol of freedom. "The man or the woman with shoes on their feet, they cannot be slaves, they are free, shoes mean they are not chickens or donkeys or pigs or dogs, they are people."
This is a really powerful story, all the more so because it is firmly rooted in truth. It offers a different perspective on the relationships between slaves and masters in a sometimes uncomfortable way.