Kings of the Water, By Mark Behr

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The Independent Culture

Early in the new millennium, Michiel Steyn returns to his family's farm in South Africa for his mother's funeral. It proves a difficult experience: his political views, forged in left-liberal circles in California during his long exile, clash with those of his Afrikaner family, while his elderly father, in particular, struggles to accept his homosexuality.

Michiel's return, and the memories of the Apartheid era that assail him, are vividly drawn. This novel has been compared with Chekhov; with a nominal plot concerning a once-wealthy estate set to be reclaimed by the underclass, there are shades of The Cherry Orchard. But, stylistically at least, Virginia Woolf seems the more pertinent influence: like Woolf, Behr is less interested in the conventional mechanics of narrative than in conveying the workings of memory, the way seemingly insignificant details can prompt a wave of reminiscence.

The result is a rich, elegiac novel that offers a subtle commentary on the new South Africa; the emphasis on remembrance lends it both an intimacy and a wider social resonance. As Michiel's childhood friend Karien puts it: "Here there's this obsession with remembering... perhaps it's because people can talk freely for the first time."