Persomi’s dreams are much bigger than the world of poverty and deprivation that surround her in the Bushveld of the 1940s and 1950s in South Africa.
Persomi is young, white and poor, born the middle child of illiterate sharecroppers on the prosperous Fourie farm. Persomi’s world is extraordinarily small. She has never been to the local village and spends her days absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world around her. Her older brother, Gerbrand, is her lifeline and her connection to the outside world. When he leaves the farm to seek work in Johannesburg, Persomi’s isolated world is blown wide open. But as her very small world falls apart, bigger dreams become open to her—dreams of an education, a profession, and of love. As Persomi navigates the changing world around her—the tragedies of WWII and the devastating racial strife of her homeland—she finally discovers who she truly is and where she belongs.
I was sent this book by the TNZ Fiction Guild, and reading and reviewing it was optional. I’d previously reviewed Joubert’s The Girl From the Train, and had mixed feelings on it, but decided I’d give this title a go.
Child of the River was first released in the Afrikaans language in South Africa in 2010. It’s now the second of Irma Joubert’s novels to be released in English in the USA by Thomas Nelson. It focuses on Persomi, the fourth child of seven, raised by an abusive father in absolute poverty. It’s expected that she’ll receive a minimal education before going to the city to find work. Determined to better herself, however, Persomi studies hard despite being looked down on for her old clothes and lack of shoes. When her family’s circumstances change, she’s able to break the cycle of poverty but it comes at a cost.
This novel spans 30 years, covering the impact of World War II on South Africa and the transformation of the country into an apartheid state. The focus in the second half is on a legal struggle based on something called the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, 1946. Persomi, now an adult, assists the local Indian community fighting against forced removal. While some of her close friends support her stand, others have opinions that seem horrific today but were considered normal at the time.
Child of the River was an eye opening read. I’d never really thought about white South Africans experiencing poverty. Nor did I know much about the differences between Afrikaner and English white South Africans. It also showed how big a factor education is in escaping poverty and hopelessness. I found some sympathetic characters and some really unlikeable ones and, perhaps surprisingly, their thoughts on race didn’t affect my opinions of them. One negative was the constant and stilted form of some of the idioms used, but this could’ve been a translation issue. The ending takes place in 1968 and is sudden. The final scene is lovely, however, and left me full of unexpected emotion. Having read Joubert’s The Girl From the Train and not been overly impressed, I have to say I far preferred Child of the River and I’d definitely recommend it.
Thank you to TNZFiction’s Fiction Guild for my complimentary copy of Child of the River. No review was required.
Have you read Child of the River? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (a division of HarperCollins Christian)
Publication Date: 18 October 2016
Page Count: 416
Read more on: Thomas Nelson’s Website