Trilby Kent's second novel, Stones for My Father, is set in South Africa during the Second Boer War. "Boer," in Dutch and Afrikaans, means "farmer," a term used for the Dutch-speaking inhabitants in the eastern Cape frontier.
The Boers settled this new frontier area out of increasing dissatisfaction with British Rule, as well as wars between Britain and some native tribes making life in their original home dangerous and unsettled. The Boers were poor, scratching a living out of the arid land, most assisted by African natives, who became unpaid laborers – though many traded goods with Boer families for which they were "employed." Judging by the examples in this novel, their relationship was a friendly, mutually beneficial one.
When Stones for My Father opens, the father of the main character, a young girl named Corlie Roux, has been dead two years. Corlie lived with her mother – who treated the girl as if she hated her, despite her obvious affection for her sons - as well as her little brothers Gert and Hansie. Corlie's only friend is an African boy named Sipho, "given" to her at her birth as a companion and somewhat of a servant. Corlie also gets along well with her older brother, Gert, though Hansie is a toddler and doesn't figure much into the plot.
"My mother grabbed me by the arm and shook me roughly. "More lies!" she shouted. "Heathen lies! We'll see how fit you are to spin tales once I've beaten the devil out of you –
I wrenched myself out of her grasp, twisting my arm so hard that I felt my shoulder pop, and ran as fast as I could toward the koppie where my father laid buried.
You can think twice about coming back, my girl!" Ma shouted after me, her voice cracking through the dusty air."
At first safe from the expanding Boer War, eventually those living in the area around Corlie's family have to pick up stakes and move, as the British march closer, burning down houses, stealing cattle and food, and reportedly killing entire families. The Roux family carries all they can, putting on as many layers of clothing as they can, despite the intense heat and lack of a ready supply of water.
They trudge through the desert in search of the safety of their soldiers, eventually running into a group of them, some of whom are long-lost relations. They rejoice at finding each other, but their troubles are far from over, as the fighting seems to intensify, and more and more women and children wind up in detention camps.
Kent's style is somewhat low-key, without flowery style, as befits the melancholy tone of the story. It also suits the bleakness of the land, the poverty of the Boers and the rough life they lead. Seldom does it turn lyrical, and even then it is subdued:
"Only then did I notice the girl lying against the far side of the tent. Less a girl than a shadow, really: there was so little of her that you would have been forgiven for thinking there was nothing beneath the blankets. She was asleep, and with each breath a tired, wheezing sound escaped through the corners of her mouth. It was hard to say whether or not she was pretty. Her skin was so fine it was almost translucent, the tiny blue veins that traveled to her temples illuminated like the branches caught in a flash of lightning."
The plot of the book moves quickly; the short book rushes by, it's so tightly-paced. In a very short stretch of time Trilby creates characters we truly care about. When terrible things happen to them it's heart-breaking, and when they're wronged the reader feels anger. The bleakness that transcends the book, however, is not unrelenting. By the end there is a certain redemption. Perhaps not what we thought, but, rather, an ending more suited to the reality of the situation.
I recommend this book very highly. It's lovely, a fast read, and leaves you thinking about the characters after you've closed the cover. The writing is very evocative, putting you in the story, grabbing hold and never letting go. I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.
[I read a free review copy of this book.]
Will Corlie’s resilience and devotion to her country sustain her through the suffering and squalor she finds in the camp at Kroonstad? That may depend on a soldier from faraway Canada and on inner resources Corlie never dreamed she had….
TRILBY KENT was born in Toronto, Ontario, but grew up in cities on both sides of the Atlantic. After completing degrees at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, she worked for a time in the rare books department at Bonhams before turning to journalism and writing novels for children and adults. Her first book, Medina Hill, is also available from Tundra Books. Trilby Kent lives in London, England.