This book was on my wish list since its US publication in 2010, but then I waited until it was available in Kindle format – very, very much worth the wait, although it would have been excellent at any time! There are ways in which it outdid my expectations and Faulkner came to mind more than once. Van Niekerk is a master of imagery and story-telling and the translator, Michiel Heyns, also did an excellent job – it must have been quite a challenge.
by Marlene van Nierkerk
2010 / 581 pages
rating 9 / contemp fiction – South Africa
(translated from Afrikaners by Michiel Heyns)
At the outset of this complex and multilayered novel, Milla de Wet, the Afrikaner heir to a largish farming operation in South Africa, is totally disabled except for her eyes with A.L.S. It’s 1996 in South Africa (apartheid ended in 1994). Her long-term devoted maid-servant, Agaat Lourier, attends to Milla’s every need from room decor and reading to personal hygiene and minor medical issues. The dark-skinned Agaat has been with Milla since she took her in at age of 6. When they began Milla was definitely in charge, teaching Agaat about all sorts of things from embroidery to calf-birthing and from reading to the culinary arts. But when the frame story takes place at Agaat’s death bed, all of that has been upended and it’s Agaat who is the force with which to reckon.
The non-linear narrative then goes back to slowly revealing the story of Milla’s life with Agaat and with her husband Jak (Jakob) as well as with their child Jakkie, and a few other minor characters.
The chapters start out in first person present tense of Milla’s “voice” while Agaat tends to her every dying need. Then the narrative switches to a second person point of view as Agaat reads to her from the old diaries Milla kept all those years although Milla also remembers some things on her own. The very last bit of each chapter consists of a kind of rambling from Milla’s confused and dying mind.
Her story? Milla married Jak de Wet in 1947 only to find out he was an abuser, not much good at anything to do with the farm and hopelessly arrogant. He is completely opposed to Milla taking Agaat under her wings and probably with good reason. Milla’s mother concurs. And then a few years later Milla gets pregnant and Agaat is needed even more although she has to sort out her own strange relationship with the whole family as well as the other workers on the farm. We never do get a real glimpse into Agaat’s head via point of view – only her actions, some incredibly loyal, some apparently rebellious, some incomprehensible.
Milla and Agaat are both very strong characters and they are not really at peace with each other in all ways. All through the story from the time they meet until the very end, Milla pushes and Agaat resists then Agaat pushes but Milla resists. The bottom line is that Agaat has Jakkie as her ultimate weapon – but even he has to grow up.
On one level Agaat can be read as a very good story about a woman and her black maid, of loyalty, marriage and motherhood with apartheid taking only a very subtle role. But on another level it can be read as political allegory because come to find out Agaat was born in the year apartheid became law and it ends with Milla, her farm and the whole country dying – or leaving.
Tremendous book – so glad I finally read it. Yes, definitely recommended.