Philida, by Andre Brink is another nominee on the longlist for this years Booker Prize. A tale of slavery in old South Africa the novel begins with the eponymous character, a slave on a farm, journeying by foot to complain at the governing body for slave masters that she has been mistreated by Frans Brink, a son of the family who owns her by whom she has borne four children.
What makes this novel all the more remarkable and special then is that it was written by Andre Brink, a descendant of said slave owners and that despite taking dramatic licence with the actual events that occur, many of the characters in the novel were in fact once real people, the authors own ancestors. Philida was a genuine slave owned by them who genuinely did go and complain about Frans Brink. A faction then, a blend of the events that Andre Brink was able to verify alongside his imagination and the knowledge of the history of the period.
The novel pitches a variety of narratives, occasionally told in the third person, the novel is also told in first person narratives from the viewpoints of Frans, Philida, Cornelius, and Petronella, a mash up which actually works and flows well.
As always I find it important that stories such as these are told so that people continue to acknowledge the indignities and abuses suffered and continue to learn from the warnings of history.
Whilst it is undeniable that this book is very accomplished and well written, for me the plot faltered slightly when Philida moves to Worcester and becomes friends with coffin making Muslim Labyn, one section of the novel feeling like an extended RE Lesson. The relationships between Frans and Philida and Cornelius and Petronella are striking enough in their own right to warrant being the sole focus of the narrative.
As a reader, however I was left with certain ethical qualms about this novel. The Brink family once owned Philida as though she was cattle. Would Philida have enjoyed having this novel written about her? Would she have agreed with its contents and are they fair? Or has Andre Brink further exploited a women already once exploited by his family (albeit consigned to history) for creative and commercial gain?