3 stars - Recommended to readers familiar with the author or genre
I wasn't sure what to think when I decided to tackle this brick of a book at the beginning of the month, other than (1) It's not something I would normally read and (2) Oh Boy, this one is going to take awhile!
Tin House Books has been working hard promoting the pants off of this book, and rightly so. The author, South African native Marlene van Niekerk, creates the epic story of Milla - a 60+ year old white South African woman who is slowly dying of ALS - and her relationship with Agaat - her colored house servant turned personal nurse.
At the surface, we are witness to Milla's last days; unable to move or speak, forced to communicate solely with her eyes, and completely at the mercy of Agaat, her one and only care taker. Agaat, a woman who has spent her entire life working on Milla's farm as a house slave, fiercely independent, and knowledgeable of her patients every want or need, sometimes delivers them in humiliating and cruel ways.
As the story progresses, we discover that both Milla and Agaat's lives are weighed down with secrets. Milla was once married to a drunk abusive man. She had a son with him, a son whom Agaat reared and raised as if her very own. Dark and twisted things lye buried in their pasts.
Van Niekerk moves the story along, delving deeper and deeper into each of these women's past, by applying an interesting story-telling technique: switching the format 4 times within each chapter.
Each chapter begins with Milla in her current incapacitated state, where we, the reader, are plunged into her head, hearing her every thought, feeling her every need, suffering as she suffers.
It then changes into a 'second person' narrative, maintaining our connection to Milla by referring to us as Milla. The timeline moves back along Milla's past, outlining the struggles with her husband Jak, and her devotion to Agaat.
The third technique is typed out in italics, and appears to be a jumbled, unstructured series of memories. Written out with limited punctuation, Milla is communicating fleeting thoughts and feelings, as one would expect in a dream-like state.
The final switch returns us to Milla's past again, via her diary entries, which are marked by date.
Knowing that, due to it's size, Agaat was going to take me longer than usual to complete, I set up a Twitter hashtag in which I documented my progress as I read. I hadn't ever done anything like that before, and it was an interesting way to record my thoughts and feelings as I moved throughout the novel.
The deeper into the story I travelled, the more caught up I became in it. The author, skilled in the art of "keeping the reader waiting", teased me with just enough backstory... Led me further and further into the dark and layered pasts of Milla, Jak, their son Jakkie, and Agaat's lives... Showed me an inkling more of what was to come, and what had come to pass. I think the best way to describe it would be comparing it to a really great tv show, where the characters are all moving towards some great discovery, and right before they uncover it.... we get a commercial break!
There were some cringe worthy moments buried here and there. The entire novel takes place on Milla's farm, so I found myself sadly reading through a pretty graphic slaughter scene. And this one I should have seen coming - With Milla being completely paralyzed, I had the wonderful experience of reading about her bowel movements (yuck! ugh! bleck!).. and of her suffering horribly with an itch she cannot scratch that spreads throughout her entire body (oh itchy itchy, it made ME itchy!).
If this story had a moral attached to it, I would have to say "be careful what you teach people, and how you treat them"... because you never know how it will manifest itself later!
Though not a book I would have read on my own, it would appear I owe another thank you to the wonderful people of Tin House for sending it along with other review copies.