'Give me a chance. Let me try myself, a self-portrait, an autobiography, life and times of Milla de Wet, her place of origin, her purlieu, on Grootmoedersdrift, her hereditary home. An honest likeness." At the start of Marlene van Niekerk's colossal new novel, Milla makes this appeal in solitude, from her deathbed and with a wry sense of its ludicrousness. A victim of motor neuron disease, she can only communicate by flickering her eyelids. And, as the novel goes on to show, her "life and times" is inconceivable without becoming also the story of Agaat Lourier, Milla's foster child, servant and now carer.
Voluminous, detailed and momentous, The Way of the Women explores the two lives and their complex relationship. Milla, dauntless, strong-willed, and ambitious, the inheritor of Grootmoedersdrift, the South African farm with a history stretching back to her great-great-great-grandmother; and Agaat Lourier, the badly neglected coloured child whom Milla appropriated, and renamed, with a view to transforming "the wild creature" into a "human being" through care, education, and discipline.
With each of the 25 chapters divided into four segments, and registering different styles and genres, the narrative consists of the dying Milla's interior monologues on her physical helplessness and the daily struggle she and Agaat undergo to understand each other; her recollections of her attempts to farm according to traditional methods and her unhappy marriage to Jak; diary entries on her ploys to win Jak round to her way of managing the farm, her supervision of Agaat's progress, her plans for the arrival of the baby Jakkie; and, lastly, stream-of-consciousness passages on the mysterious workings of body and disease.
It is a narrative which has throughout to make room for the voices of others – Agaat, Jak, and to a lesser extent Jakkie. All have intruded upon her story, have contradicted or elaborated upon it. Bedridden, she is forced to listen to Agaat reading back to her "the Quink-inscribed pages" of exercise books. With so many annotations and excisions, there is no telling where her own and Agaat's accounts overlap.
The Way of the Women invites various readings. Spanning five decades of South African history and with the important dates in the characters' lives – 1948, 1960, 1996, for example – made coincident with key moments in the public life, it is an allegory of colonial exploitation, apartheid, and the precarious steps towards reconciliation. A narrative about farming disasters, revenge, domestic discord, the oppressive patriarchal order, deaths violent and protracted, it is a reworking of the paasroman: the farm-novel genre. Above all, the novel, as the English title has it, is about the way of the women, their identification with the land, and their dealings with each other, behind which lie tangled feelings of love, resentment, anger, sympathy, malice, kindness.
How does one tend the once proud, now "naked emaciated body", without causing humiliation? How does a servant turn an acquired language into a weapon of self-defence and attack? How does Agaat, who makes gardens grow, give Milla a "multiplied" version of her "last" garden, reproducing it as shadows, light, and colour on the wall and in the mirrors?
In addition, it is about the space the women create for themselves, a wealth of stories, a repository of Afrikaner children's rhymes, folksongs, poems, fiction, manuals on how to farm, handbooks on how to embroider; all of which van Niekerk's translator, Michiel Heyns, has carried across to us. Finally, it is about continuity and survival as details, images, experiences and actions from the past circle back to the present. So it is apt that the headstone marking Milla's grave should include the words, "And God saw that it was Good". For, semi-precious stone apart, Agaat is Dutch for Agatha and derives from the Greek "agathos", meaning "good". It is also the original title of van Niekerk's Afrikaner novel.
Shirley Chew, emeritus professor of English at Leeds University, edits the journal 'Moving Worlds'
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