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A Few Words on Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk

February 5, 2011


I found Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk in the new book section at my library and decided to pick it up.  My copy is translated from Afrikaans into English by Michiel Heyns.  It is a hard book to describe in any sufficient fashion.  The basic theme of the story explores the relationship between a white woman and her maidservant over time in pre and post apartheid South Africa.  The tale takes place in a small farming community and explores complications in marriage, farming, race relationships, illness, and family.

The narration is done in several formats.  One is from the perspective of the protagonist as she lays dying and paralyzed in her bed with the maidservant as her caretaker.  Another part of the narration is from diary entries, yet another is third person to clarify missing points in the diary entries.  The fourth narration type is free-form thoughts interspersed through out the book.  These multiple narration styles can make reading this book somewhat complicated, especially at the beginning.  I found that as I got further into the story though I was able to get used to it.

The story began somewhat dry and slightly confusing.  As it moved along it got more and more interesting.  The best part of the book was the last quarter of it.  I felt it was the most emotionally charged section of the entire novel.

The prose and imagery in this novel were gripping and beautiful.  There were times when the words read out beautifully and other times when they were ugly and you knew they were supposed to be.  This book carries a lot of emotions in the words and images it conjures up.

One interesting note is that the translator changed the rhymes and some of the stories to make it more applicable to a western audience.  I am not sure how I feel about this.  I am sure it made the story easier to understand, but at the same time I wonder if there was something lost in the story by doing that.  I would be very interested to see how the original Afrikaans stories and rhymes translated into English so I could judge for myself whether or not they would make the story lose it’s flavor.

Overall this was a good book, full of emotionally charged and very difficult issues dealing with life, death, and human relationships.  If you can move past a book that begins slowly and are adaptable to varying narration styles then this is a excellent book to read.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 3:57 pm

    This is a book that I’ve had on my radar for some time – I’ve heard good things about it so am glad to hear you found a lot to interest you in it. I may have to pick it up one of these days.

    • February 7, 2011 5:18 pm

      The story is really good and is definitely worth reading … just be prepared for some really random narration styles … it took some getting used to and made me read it rather slowly at first.

  2. February 12, 2011 2:04 pm

    Thanks for visiting my blog the other day and for your kind words 🙂 I’m really glad you linked to this because I might have missed out on this great book otherwise. I don’t read a lot of adult lit (being a children’s librarian), but I’m really interested in this story, it looks so good. Great review and happy reading!

    • February 12, 2011 6:56 pm

      I’m glad to have been able to help you find a new book to read. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. The story really is great.


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