Monday, August 15, 2016

Child of the River by Irma Joubert

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 13, 2016

Persomi’s dreams are much bigger than the world of poverty and deprivation that surround her in the Bushveld of the 1940s and 1950s in South Africa. Persomi is young, white and poor, born the middle child of illiterate sharecroppers on the prosperous Fourie farm. Persomi’s world is extraordinarily small. She has never been to the local village and spends her days absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world around her. Her older brother, Gerbrand, is her lifeline and her connection to the outside world. When he leaves the farm to seek work in Johannesburg, Persomi’s isolated world is blown wide open. But as her very small world falls apart, bigger dreams become open to her—dreams of an education, a profession, and of love. As Persomi navigates the changing world around her—the tragedies of WWII and the devastating racial strife of her homeland—she finally discovers who she truly is and where she belongs. A compelling coming of age story with an unlikely and utterly memorable heroine, Persomi’s English language publication solidifies Irma Joubert’s important place in the canon of inspirational historical fiction.

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My interest in Irma Joubert's Child of the River was sparked by the WWII reference in its jacket description which is hilarious as, after reading it, I'd never recommend the book as war era fiction. The conflict is little more than a footnote in the grand scheme of Persomi's story and while I was somewhat disappointed by that reality, I am happy to note that I do not consider the time I spent with Child of the River wasted. The book is a slow starter and it wasn't at all what I expected, but once the story got going it proved utterly impossible to put down.

I'm sure there are those who will feel Persomi anachronistic, but I thought her fascinating. She has a unique background and I loved how the disadvantages she experienced as a child authenticated her views and understandings as an adult. Persomi grew up on the social fringe so it wasn't difficult to believe her empathy for the disenfranchised. I liked that. Too often I see characters who defy their era, upbringing, and class and I appreciated Joubert for creating a heroine who was atypical enough to be interesting, but equally appropriate to her era.

Conceptually, I also liked an idea that Joubert played with over the course of the narrative. It's subtle, but the suggestion that it is the children who suffer the indiscretions of the past intrigued me. Persomi doesn't know her own history and her journey to unlock those mysteries impacts her in ways that shape the course of her life and cause her to reinvent herself several times over. Long story short, Joubert used Persomi to explore some very deep emotions and I think brought a lot to the narrative.

Historically, speaking, I greatly enjoyed the world Joubert created within these pages. South Africa is not a locale I see often and I appreciated the crash course I received as the story progressed. Child of the River chronicles a time and place that I knew very little about and I feel that Joubert's illustration of the social and political movements of the day afforded me a great deal of insight.

Child of the River was not what I expected, but it surprised me in the best possible way. It isn't my typical fair, but I'd definitely recommend it to other readers.

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She frowned. “Is it worth it, Boelie? Laying down your life for the freedom of your people?” 
“It’s what soldiers of many countries in Europe and North Africa are doing at this moment . . . thousands, millions of them,” he said. 
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