Friday, May 7, 2010

Agaat (Marlene van Neikerk)

A novel. I picked it up at AWP. It just came out.


Milla is a white South African landowner, newly married, eager to prove that she can run a farm without her mother and in spite of her dandy of a husband. In an attempt to bring some semblance of order to her household, Milla brings on a young black girl named Agaat to act as her chief maidservant. Milla's husband, Jak, hates Agaat and the amount of responsibility Milla entrusts to the girl, but once their son, Jakkie, is born, Agaat proves to be invaluable. Agaat follows the story of Milla and Agaat's relationship over the decades as the two women move between periods of open disdain and quiet admiration for each other.

That doesn't sound like much. When I read the back cover, I wasn't expecting to be blown away at all. Much of the story takes place in the 1990s when Milla is suffering from near-complete paralysis. With Jak dead and Jakkie living abroad, Agaat is forced to take care of her. Through flashbacks and diary entries, the reader slowly discovers that the relationship between the two women was not always so smooth, though it may have always been as symbiotic. Each chapter is broken into four parts, each with their own unique structure and narrative style. There's the first-person inner monologue of Milla as she lies in bed, completely paralyzed, thinking about her life while Agaat tends to her; there's the second-person storytelling section where Milla talks to the woman she used to be; there's the heavily stylized diary entries written by Milla in her youth; and finally there is a psuedo-poetic portion of each chapter that doesn't always make sense, but gives the reader a strong sense of that chapter's emotional tone. It's really heavy stuff.

No, I mean it, it's really, really, really heavy stuff. This is one of the densest, most descriptive books I've ever read. It's gorgeous, don't get me wrong, but this book took me absolutely forever to read. This isn't one of those nice, "you might want to free up your weekend" books. This is one of those nice, "you might want to free up your SUMMER" books. I have to say, though, I usually hate those dense, super-descriptive books because nothing happens, it's all flowery detail. That's not the case here. Shit happens, constantly. Marlene van Neikerk makes a woman lying in a bed staring at the wall interesting. That's the kind of thing that you would normally say hyperbolically if you really enjoy someone's writing. "Oh, they could make a woman lying in a bed staring at the wall interesting." Sorta like when people say "he could be funny reading the phone book." No, I'm not being hyperbolic: THE WOMAN IS LYING IN HER BED STARING AT THE WALL AND IT IS SO COMPELLING! Seriously, so, so compelling. In the very first chapter, Milla confesses to the reader that she's trying to signal something to Agaat, that she wants Agaat to find one of her old maps and put it up on the wall for her to see. The only problem is that Milla has lost all physical control of her body, and has to signal to Agaat with her eyes. Instant conflict. You can be damn sure that from then on I was dying to find out if Milla was ever going to be able to convey her message to Agaat. That's fantastic writing right there.


by Marlene van Neikerk

I'm a plot guy. I want to see my characters looking for someone, striving for something, or racing against time. There's none of that here. It's a woman and her servant. And it's incredible.

This chick knows her shit.

I had fun, and I wanted to keep reading, and I wanted to know everything about these people, but the book takes forever to get through. Points off for being a book of 600 pages that felt like a book of 2,000 pages.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

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