By Rob Gaylard
Kagiso Lesego Molope's This Book Betrays my Brother (Oxford University Press) engages and convinces the reader, and does so with consummate skill.
It is a coming-of-age novel that depicts the growth pains of the narrator and her friends - early-teenage girls who are coming to terms with their sexuality. It describes the excitement of dating, going to your first social, the matric dance.
The need to be attractive to the opposite sex and to conform to social expectations is overwhelming. These scenes create a convincing familial and social context, and the intimate, local feel of the narrative is greatly enhanced by the frequent resort to Setswana words or expressions (a glossary is provided).
The protagonist and narrator, Naledi, is part of a well-to-do family. Her father owns a grocery shop, Tshwene's General Store. They have moved from the township (ko motseng or kasi) up to "diEx", the extension, where upwardly mobile middle-class families live.
The narrative explores these two worlds, and depicts the social and psychological realities that shape Naledi. She and her brother experience the tension between wanting to belong to their own township-based peer groups and of being part of a privileged group that attends private schools, plays rugby (rather than soccer) and speaks English much of the time.
Naledi's mother insists, "We are not the same". In this way the novel recalls the themes so memorably explored by Njabulo Ndebele in Fools and Other Stories.
The childhood world of the siblings is richly evoked, but even here there are darker shadows: the decomposing body of a woman in the woods; Vera the ghost, who haunts the main road at night.
Naledi cannot banish these troubling spectres from her mind.
She has a handsome and talented brother, with whom she has a close, loving relationship. Basimane is a few years older than Nedi, is bolder, is allowed more freedom, and his closest friend is a boy from the kasi, Kgosi, whose mother has a compelling life story. Basi is admired by all - a local hero.
"Basimane was made of everything strong and beautiful and promising," she says.
Competing personal and social loyalties complicate life for Naledi, but these will be familiar to many of the young adult readers at whom this novel is aimed. To add to the mix, Nedi has a close friend, Ole, who seems to be lesbian, and challenges Naledi's preconceptions.
Because the novel is firmly grounded in these social realities, the excruciating personal story which is its central burden becomes all the more credible. Simply put, Nedi and Basi are characters we can believe in, and even identify with.
The central, shocking episode (late in the novel) describes Basi raping his girlfriend, Moipone. This episode is carefully contextualised and tactfully described.
What assumptions, what kinds of socialisations underpin or help to explain Basi's behaviour?
Should we seek to understand it, or should we simply condemn his actions outright?
The rape is witnessed (almost by accident, through a bedroom window) by Naledi, and plunges her into an unbearable conflict. When news of the rape gets out, Moipone's story is widely disbelieved.
The family move swiftly to protect Basi to ensure that his promising future is not threatened.
The novel explores Naledi's dilemma in a sympathetic but nuanced way. Should she find the courage to come forward and tell what happened, this would be seen (by her family and probably by the community) as a "betrayal" of her brother. Real life is complicated.
Basi is an engaging and likeable character, and the novel can almost be read as an apologia for his actions. In fact, however, it highlights a crucial and disturbing fact: crimes of rape, incest and domestic violence are often not committed by "other people", or by "monsters", but by loved family members.
The novel's strength is that it deals with these sensitive and difficult issues in a balanced and insightful way. It is clearly excellent teaching material: it can serve as a platform to open up discussion of these issues by a school-going young adult audience.
The helpful material on the OUP website is designed to guide the teacher in dealing with the issues raised. This supporting material will (I am sure) have been approved by the author, who has worked as a counsellor and educator in a number of organisations.
Her two previous novels are both highly regarded, and this novel confirms her stature as a talented writer of compelling stories that are grounded in the realities of post-1994 South Africa. It avoids overt polemics, there is no over-simplification or stereotyping, and it can be read as a perceptive and convincingly realised coming-of-age novel - one that will appeal as much to adult readers as to its target audience.
The prologue and epilogue set this retrospective narration in the context of familial and communal storytelling. It takes 15 years, and a chance meeting with Moipone, before Naledi is able to make a full disclosure (by writing her story and directly addressing the reader).
The novel strikes a difficult balance between sympathy and judgement and challenges the reader.
For Naledi, the "hideous incident" marks the end of innocence: it introduces her to a world with no "uncomplicated truths". - published March 17.