Philida, by Andre Brink

 

It is not until the acknowledgements at the end of his Man Booker-longlisted 21st novel that the South African author André Brink reveals the historical roots from which it sprang: "[The slave woman Philida] worked as a knitting girl on the farm from 1824 to 1832," he writes. "The discovery that her master Cornelis Brink was a brother of one of my own direct ancestors, and that he sold her at auction after his son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink had made four children with her, triggered this novel."

It is a startling admission from a hero of the anti-apartheid movement, made in an era in which everyone seems to be apologising for slavery. Instead of an apology, Brink pieces together a story from the fragments of information that he can find about Philida. Such as that, "in her deposition, Philida alleges that she and Frans have 'made' four children. But in the Slave Rolls and other official sources only three children are ever listed …"

The novel opens in 1832, with the coming liberation of slaves a thrilling rumour around the longhouses and farms of the Cape. Philida is walking with a baby on her back to the office of the Slave Protector, to make a complaint about Frans, the son of her owner. The complaint is not about what he did to her, for eight years, in the bamboo copse beyond the vineyard, but "because he take me and he promise me things and now he is going away from me … He say he will give me my freedom."

Philida's nerve in doing this – and in the way she speaks to the bony white man – is almost too strange for fiction. And yet, her visit to the Slave Protector is a matter of record. Based on the evidence, the Philida that Brink paints is credible, and wonderful. The Protector's verdict, however, will not come as a surprise, and nor will the stories – all true – of hangings, flayings, forced labour and rape. Against this background, Brink's fictional explanation for what happened to Philida's first child rings all too true.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this novel is that its overwhelming sense, somehow, is one of hope. Philida never does get to write her children's names in the family Bible, but, nearly 200 years later, Brink does rather better than say sorry for what his ancestors did.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living