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This review is from: Philida (Hardcover)
I am aware that novels about slavery should not be an 'enjoyable' or 'comfortable' read, but this one I found too difficult to bear. While Philida's voice is striking and powerful, what unsettled me most was that Brink chose a multiple narrative, including Philida's boss, Cornelis, and Cornelis' son, Frans.
Frans's relationship with Philida is complicated - although he claims that he loves her, and there is the odd moment of tenderness, I cannot see their sexual relationship as anything other than rape (a slave girl can not say 'no' to her master's son; love is not love if one person is owned by the other), or at least forced prostitution - Philida seems to endure it only because he promises to free her and their children, a promise he reneges on. He is weak and unwilling to defend her, both against his father and the law. It feels somewhat like reading Tess of the D'urbervilles with Alec D'urberville as a co-narrator.
Cornelis is a more straightforward character, with no understanding of his slaves beyond brute animals, and inhabiting his head is unsurprisingly unpleasant. A rape scene - one that Philida herself declines to describe - is instead told by him, making it feel like a further violation and also that you are a voyeur or even complicit in the action. Add to this the fact that this novel is based on actual, real-life ancestors of Brink's (and he makes this connection obvious by giving them the surname 'Brink'), and it feels all the more complicit. I'm not exactly sure what point Brink was trying to make with this novel - was he trying to resolve any lingering guilt he may have felt for his ancestors? Was he trying to undo the 'sweeping under the rug' of slave history in South Africa, by bringing this particular history to light?
The use of Afrikaans dialect and slow, somewhat rambling pace make this novel even more difficult to understand - unfortunately, whatever Brink's intentions were, I found it lost under the weight of too many voices and too much history.