In sensuous, intensely visual language, author Mda depicts the life of Niki, a black South African, showing her day-to-day struggles to survive under apartheid and raise her children, but he also depicts Fr. Frans Claerhout's idealized vision of her in his paintings--as a colorful Madonna figure, the mother of children who will eventually change the world. Niki has posed for many of Fr. Claerhout's paintings, a job which has helped her to feed her black son and her half-white daughter, even though she has often had to walk thirty-five kilometers to his studio in order to pose. Niki's story, from her teen years to old age, becomes the story of South Africa itself during the last half of the 20th century, a novel told from the perspective of a black author, and quite unlike the novels of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee, though they cover the same time period.
Excelsior, the township in which Niki lives, is almost entirely black, yet all power in government and business rests in white hands. Without resorting to melodrama or clichés, the author shows in incident after incident, how black women are regarded as chattel, regularly harassed and even raped by their white bosses, town officials, judges, and even clergymen. Yet Niki never yields to self-pity, even when she and eighteen other women and the men who have used them are put on trial for violating the Immorality Act, a violation which has produced Niki's daughter Popi. Imperfect, sometimes angry, and often calculating, Niki comes alive as a woman determined to hang on to her pride, using the only power she has, her sexual power, to control those who would control her.
Vivid scenes of South African life from the 1970s to the present bring Niki and her children to life. As the children grow and become deeply involved in political movements, Mda gives us a clear-eyed picture of South Africa's transition from a restrictive, white-ruled government to a democratically elected government with room for both races. The black people here are real, not idealized, people with hopes, dreams, and strategies for survival, and they evoke enormous sympathy from the reader, especially as their personal limitations and faults become clear. Concentrating less on the national violence and battles for survival, and more on the individual conflicts of people in Excelsior, many of whom the reader has come to like and respect, he presents complex issues in a clear, uncomplicated narrative which throbs with life and offers both hope and caution for the future. Mary Whipple