Philida was written by South African author Andre Brink in 2012 and longlisted for the Man Booker prize.
It is 1832 in South Africa, the year before slavery is abolished and the slaves are emancipated. Philida is the mother of four children by Francois Brink, the son of her master. When Francois’s father orders him to marry a woman from a prominent Cape Town family, Francois reneges on his promise to give Philida her freedom, threatening instead to sell her to new owners in the harsh country up north. Here is the remarkable story—based on individuals connected to the author’s family—of a fiercely independent woman who will settle for nothing and for no one. Unwilling to accept the future that lies ahead of her, Philida continues to test the limits and lodges a complaint against the Brink family. Then she sets off on a journey—from the southernmost reaches of the Cape, across a great wilderness, to the far north of the country—in order to reclaim her soul. (read more on GoodReads)
Brink says in the acknowledgements that this novel was borne out of his discovery of Philida’s story as a slave at Zandvliet owned by Cornelis Brink who in reality is the brother of a direct ancestor of his. Every detail of this book has been based on fact from the spelling of the names of places like ‘Caab’ (for Cape) to the exchange rate from Pounds Sterling to the local Rix Dollar of the time. Every element of the way that the slaves were treated and the running of the slave auctions is based on his research. The cultural aspects of this story are also a true reflection of the time. The only part of the book that really came from the author’s imagination is the part of Philida’s life that follows her being sold at the auction in Worcester because at this point she vanishes completely from the historical records.
“Brink wrote this book after discovering that a collateral ancestor of his owned a slave named Philida in the early 1800s. As he recounts in the acknowledgments, the real Philida lodged a brave complaint to the Slave Protector in 1832 about her treatment by Francois Brink, who was the son of her owner, Cornelis. She claimed that she had four children by Francois, and André Brink uses this historical record as a launching pad for his imagined version of Philida’s life. In the novel, she tells the Slave Protector that Francois reneged on his promise of freedom and was planning to sell her, in order to follow his father’s orders to marry a white woman.” (NYT review Cape Fear by Ceridwen Dovey)
There are paragraphs upon paragraphs of descriptions about what people went through living in those times in the Cape Colony. Living through slavery and living on a harsh and unforgiving landscape. I found this book both interesting and tragic to read. It is personal for me as I am from Cape Town. There were moments where I was saddened and when I was shocked. It’s a book that definitely made me think about what took place on the land that I know so well, on the streets that I have walked on. This is because of the historical detail of this book not necessarily the story itself (hence the 3 star rating instead of 5) albeit well written.
This novel is about slavery in general in the Cape but I feel it is important to acknowledge through Philida that, in the Cape, slavery did not only extend to black Africans but also to all those people brought from Batavia (now Jakarta) and other areas in Indonesia. The slaves like Philida left their mark on this African country through the vibrant ‘Cape Malay’ culture we have in the Cape today which as many may know includes some of our best known national culinary dishes. I digress…
I have noticed in a number of reviews that the voice Brink chose for Philida was not to their liking. Philida’s verbs are never conjugated. This I am sure is to distinguish her voice from the others whose points of view are taken throughout the novel. It didn’t bother me, personally. Maybe it’s because I know Brink’s books are originally written in Afrikaans and I can imagine how Philida may have spoken Afrikaans in those times compared to the Afrikaans of the Brinks. Brink translates all his own novels into English, extremely well, but I can attest to the fact that a great deal is lost in translation. There are even words that were left in Afrikaans in the English Philida because there simply aren’t equivalents that would suffice. I am also glad he did that for the sake of maintaining its South African flavour for those that choose to read the English version.
All in all I’m happy to have read it. It isn’t a happy ending story per se. It isn’t a story where you can expect fast paced action. It is a glimpse into a time, a glimpse into the life of a slave woman who wants to seize the opportunity to wear shoes of her own instead of the imposed bare feet of slavery.