(Spoiler warning: sorry, it's hard not to give the plot away if you want to discuss what was so engaging about the book.)
By the way, the picture is a vervet monkey, and they appear through the book as Oupa's adversary, he sits with his shotgun trying to fight them off, but they seems to be pretty determined little buggers. Words in various african languages are scattered throughout, and I was half way through the book before it occurred to me to look in the back of the book for a glossary, some words were obvious but knowing others was definitely important and added to the story. Oupa is grandfather to the story's two heroines, Nyree and Cia, they look upon him as the source of all wisdom, and of course all family history. The story is narrated by Nyree, looking back on her childhood, but very much telling it from the point of view of an eight year old. The girls live their life in what can only be described as benign neglect: their father is off fighting the 'Terrs' (terrorists, or as some might call them, freedom fighters) and their mother is thus left to run the farm, leaving the girls to be cared for by Oupa and Jobe. School is mentioned in a few places but it seems pretty peripheral to their lives which are a patchwork of fantasy and exploration. The story is set in Rhodesia in the late 1970's, during the 'Bush War', a political and historical event that hovers in the background of the girl's lives, something they are aware of, but as children it is never quite close enough to preoccupy them. They idolise their father, who is a fantastic figure who appears and vanishes unpredictably. Nyree describes the effect of his sudden reappearance:
"Mom changes around him too. From striding around the farm in a pair of flared hipster denims, a rifle slung over one shoulder, not taking any nonsense from the likes of us, she lets her hair down, slips into satin petticoats and perfume and the timbre of her laughter changes. The world tilts dangerously, and I feel a little giddy." (p.28)
But the tale of great-uncle Seamus (shot in a skirmish with a kaffir, as it says on his gravestone) rears it's ugly head and their lives are intruded upon much more directly by the arrival of Ronin, who's history is not really explained until the end. To begin with they are fascinated by him, in spite of his distain for them:
"For the most part Ronin seems rather aloof and he ignores us as studiously as we're studying him. He proves worth the scrutiny. He tears branches from trees and thrashes their trunks. He broods for hours down by the riverine, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, scuffing his shoes through the dirt. It's not long before Cia and I take to mooching about, our hands shoved deep in pretend pockets, brazenly scuffing our shoes through the dirt, in flagrant violation of Mom's shoe-scuffing rules." (p.67)
But things then take a more sinister turn, and their mother seems totally taken in by his superficial charm, whilst the girls find themselves the victims of his malevolence. At one point when they go to stay with friends 'in town' and at the swimming pool Cia is dragged unexpectedly under the water:
"Cia is choking and gasping, her eyes huge, the pupils dilated. I look around wildly. I am confused, panicked, and then somehow I look straight across on a diagonal to the far side of the pool. There is Ronin, squarely in my line of vision, and he is staring directly at us. He holds my gaze for a suspended moment, then turns and pulls himself smoothly from the pool. In that instant, I know it was him." (p.85)
There are lulls in the tension during term time when he goes off to boarding school, but on his return the girls live in a state of surreal fear, exacerbated by the death of their beloved dog Moosejaw and culminating in the terrifying final confrontation.
The book captures the atmosphere of childhood so wonderfully. The girls live in a magical world inhabited by fairies, their naive beliefs fostered by influences from african pagan superstitions and catholicism. They sneak out at night to perform ceremonies and try and make contact with them:
"As my fingers grope around the gnarly bark of a tree-trunk, I wonder if we'll see fairies tonight. I'm half hoping we will, half hoping we won't. Fairies are strange beings. They dine on the perfume of flowers; toadstools spring where fairy feet have gone and they cast white shadows. There are fairies of the earth and of the air, and water fairies, who dwell in lakes, rivers, pools, springs, wells, fountains and even in raindrops and tears." (p.114)
But then the fairies come to symbolise the gradual loss of innocence that permeates the story. There is a fierce bush fire (apparently started deliberately to target their farm) which destroys their fairy grotto:
"'Do you think the fairies got burned up?'
I lift the shell of a small tortoise and peer into it. I can smell the singed body of the tortoise curled up inside - his own house must have become the oven in which he roasted alive. I know she wants me to tell her they escaped. I look at her and shrug." (p.155)
And then at the very end, her family is struggling to mend itself, but Nyree knows that the fairies are no more:
"Some of the magic is gone though. The fairies have withered and died, their wings crunchy like dragonflies'. Now glow-worms are just glow-worms glowing faintly under the bushes at night." (p.229)
The other equally dominant aspect of the story's atmosphere is Africa. But this is not a lush and beautiful Africa, but an Africa that is at war with human beings:
"When he's not on vervet detail, Oupa mounts campaigns against the legions of invading invertebrates, from white ants who secretly eat the wood in the farmhouse leaving nothing but husks in their wake, to swarms of technicoloured locusts who simply devour everything, to the disease-carrying flesh-eaters .....
'Pestilence and disease afflicting the human is everywhere on this God-forsaken continent, but I tell you there is naught so apt a metaphor for the grotesque fecundity of life in Africa as her gut-dwelling flatworm parasites,' he concludes, as he grips the head of the exposed guineaworm infesting Blessing's foot and tugs at it." (p.48)
(The descriptions of potential diseases and parasites gets more explicit, but I'll spare you any more details.)
There is very little description of wildlife until the drought season arrives:
"Sometimes Cia and I march out with the army of cripples. Between their contorted skeletons low thorn scrub claws at our bare legs and we have to navigate the veld wreckage strewn everywhere: abandoned termite mounds, husks of dead trees, suspicious pits bored into the earth. We've started to find the carcasses of impala, nyala and even great kudu bulls lying there in the veld." (p.146)
Though I did love this:
"Fat lizards idle in a stupor next to the enthroned Oupa on the stoep, their bulbous, blue-green scales gleaming lizardly. Wasps wasp noisily in the gauze across the front-door screen." (p.135)
The tales that Jobe tells them are the only time we get any picture of life for native Africans. He lived for a time in what must be a kind of township in South Africa, referred to as 'The Location', where the resident's lives are totally controlled by the Location Manager called de la Rey. He is despised by the people and they pass their time, and make it more bearable by fantasising about his departure:
"You could get yourself arrested for just about anything - for possessing a spiked stick, for sitting on the wrong bench outside the Court of Native Affairs, for disobedience, trespass, nuisance, impertinence.....
The people came to him one by one. De la Rey almost never looked up. Next. Question. Answer. Bang. Shuffle. But the line never grew shorter. It smelled in there of sweat and insecticide, ink and floor dust.....
The people were preparing wonderful celebrations for when he left. Nobody knew when he would go, but they liked to think about him leaving and to plan the celebration ....
And there were schemes too, to hurry up his leaving. There were ways to make his car have an accident and ways to get a snake to bite him ....
Then there were the funeral schemes. Who will organise the procession, who will be the pall-bearers, what will the choir sing and on and on. If they ever raised funds for a coffin for de la Rey they'd get enough for a solid gold one." (p.104-5)
Their family's disintegration is mirrored in the political situation which deteriorates until of course you get the capitulation of the Rhodesian army, leading to the election of the ZANU party and Robert Mugabe in 1980. Their farm is repossessed and their uncertain future is left hanging. It was strange because of course your sympathies are with the family you know, but it is almost more so because of course we know the future and what it holds for the newly born Zimbabwe, and you cannot help but feel doubly sad that the people of that country have never got the freedom that they were really struggling for.
I could write so much more. I have not even touched on Angelique, the girl's grandmother, and their obsession with her. Such lovely writing, full of subtle themes and images. An interesting contrast to 'Property' from a few weeks ago, in terms of the portrayal of the relationships between the white farmers and the indigenous population. Again because of the perspective of the writing you are not passing judgement on the attitudes that are portrayed, they are just part of the society that the story is describing.
But what I loved most about the story is the relationship of the two girls. They do everything together; bicker in the back of the car, listen to Oupa's stories, face their fears in the darkness and consume their peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Nyree acts as Cia protector and teacher, by virtue of being older, but she needs her sister just as much in return. Something she recognises most poignantly at the end of the book; I leave you with this quote, it reduced me to tears:
"I don't want to stay in our bedroom either. Tonight will be only the second time that Cia isn't sleeping next to me in it. The other time was long, long ago. Cia went to hospital to have an operation. The hospital was called the Salisbury Central. I was taken to visit her in the children's ward. I remember her toddling towards me down the centre of the black and white chequered aisle between ranks of sterile metal cots and starched white linen. I was jealous of her, but she was so pleased to see me that I forgave her. I remember it in the fragmented way you remember the earliest things, mainly because it was the first time that I understood Cia was separate from me, was not me, could go places I couldn't go, could know things I didn't know. Alone now in our room, without Cia to smother whispers with and pretend not to be scared of the dark for. I don't know what to do. We are still one after all, and with her gone, I am no more." (p.217)