André Brink's 2012 longlisted novel tells the story of Philida, a slave in South Africa in the mid 1830s. Philida's story begins with a journey to the slave protector's office, where she files a formal complaint against her master's son, Frans. Over the years, Frans has promised Philida freedom in the heat of lovemaking, but has yet to deliver on his word. In the meantime, Philida has given birth to several of Frans's children, and she is impatient and frustrated. But when Philida files her complaint, she is informed that, because Frans was never her master, he does not have the power to grant her freedom. Only Frans's father, Cornelis Brink, has such power, but he is an angry, cruel man and does not care about the well-being of Philida or his enslaved grandchildren.
Despite Philida's low social status, she refuses to take no for an answer and devises her own means of escape and freedom, but not without encountering a great deal of pain and hardship along the way. Told from alternating narrative voices, Philida is a heartbreaking, but inspiring story of one woman's bravery and determination to achieve freedom for herself and her young children.
Early on in the story, Philida's voice is weak and hopeless - especially in regards to her uncertain future. She says, "I belong nowhere. What happen to me will always be what others want to happen. I am a piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else" (p. 60). But as the story progresses, Philida slowly begins to take control of her life and her destiny, and by the end of the novel she proclaims: "I am free because I am free. Because I myself take my freedom. I take it and I choose it" (p. 236). However, like most stories of slavery, freedom comes at a steep price, and Philida endures a great deal of violence and trauma in her endeavors.
As Opinionless mentioned in their review of Philida, images of sexual abuse are quite frequent (and graphic) in the first part of the novel. While I am quite aware of the sexual degradation that slaves experienced, Brink's descriptions often felt overwhelming and a bit gratuitous at times. Perhaps time could have been better spent in the efforts of character development rather than character debasement - it just makes Philida come across as a woman who has been singularly defined by men and their penises, which is disappointing, because Philida is so much more dynamic than that. Or, at least she could be.
While I respect Brink's efforts to portray such a volatile time in South Africa, he might have been a bit overzealous in regards to the various narrative voices. There are so many perspectives and narrative modes, it makes the book feel unorganized and incomplete. I understand that Brink is trying to engage readers' sympathies from both sides of the story by including the voices of Cornelis and Frans, but it felt fragmented rather than dynamic. And to tell you the truth, it was boring at times. It was difficult to sympathize with any of the characters (other than Philida), because the narratives felt incomplete and splintered. But many of these characters have appeared in other Brink novels, so perhaps Philida would be best read in succession with his related novels. As Brink has mentioned, this book is based on his own family history. One of his direct ancestors was a slaveholder named Cornelis Brink, and Philida was derived as an imagining of life on the Brinks' farm during this time.
As Philida progresses, the novel explores the influence of Islam in The Cape - especially the way slave life was affected by the spread of Islamic teachings. Brink skillfully weaves religion into the story through various characters, narratives, and folktales, and the way Philida perceives her newfound religious knowledge is fascinating. Unlike many of her peers, she allows religion to inspire and guide her rather than control her. She never uses religion as a tool for vindication or revenge, but as a pathway to understanding and internal peace. By the end of the novel, we see a completely different person in Philida - we see a woman with pride, direction, and confidence:
" In the brown water of the Gariep I shall wash myself clean. I do not want to be whiter than snow as the Ouman use to say. Brown is what I am and brown is what I want to be. Like stone. Like soil. Like the earth. Brown like everything that is worthwhile. Brown I will wash myself. A new person I will be. Brown." (p. 238)As outlined in the story, slavery was abolished in the South African Cape on December 1, 1834, but Philida seeks more than just physical freedom. She seeks hope, resolution, and a new legacy. And this is where the novel abruptly ends. Once again, the potential for a great, charismatic novel is lost in itself, but at least Philida's transformation is complete. We may not know what the future holds for Philida, but she is more than equipped to handle it.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/20/12