Summary and book reviews of Philida by André Brink

Philida

By André Brink

Philida
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  • Paperback: Feb 2013,
    320 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Dawson Oakes

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About this Book

Book Summary

This is what it is to be a slave: that everything is decided for you from out there. You just got to listen and do as they tell you. You don't say no. You don't ask questions. You just do what they tell you. But far at the back of your head you think: Soon there must come a day when I can say for myself: This and that I shall do, this and that I shall not.

André Brink - "one of South Africa's greatest novelists" (The Telegraph) - gives us his most powerful novel yet;  the truly unforgettable story of a female slave, and her fierce determination to survive and to be free.

It is 1832 in South Africa, the year before slavery is abolished and the slaves are emancipated. Philida is the mother of four children by Francois Brink, the son of her master. When Francois's father orders him to marry a woman from a prominent Cape Town family, Francois reneges on his promise to give Philida her freedom, threatening instead to sell her to new owners in the harsh country up north.
 
Here is the remarkable story - based on individuals connected to the author's family - of a fiercely independent woman who will settle for nothing and for no one. Unwilling to accept the future that lies ahead of her, Philida continues to test the limits and lodges a complaint against the Brink family. Then she sets off on a journey - from the southernmost reaches of the Cape, across a great wilderness, to the far north of the country - in order to reclaim her soul.

Excerpted from Chapter One

On Saturday 17 November 1832, after following the Elephant Trail that runs between the Village of Franschhoek, past the Farm Zandvliet to the small Town of Stellenbosch near Cape Town, the young Slave Woman Philida arrives at the Drostdy with its tall white Pillars, where she is directed to the Office of the Slave Protector, Mijnheer Lindenberg, to lodge a Complaint against her Owner Cornelis Brink and his Son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink


Here come shit. Just one look, and I can see it coming. Here I walk all this way and God know that is bad enough, what with the child in the abbadoek on my back, and now there's no turning back, it's just straight on to hell and gone. This is the man I got to talk to if I want to lay a charge, they tell me, this Grootbaas who is so tall and white and thin and bony, with deep furrows in his forehead, like a badly ploughed wheat field, and a nose like a sweet potato that has grown past itself.

It's a long story...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The author André Brink begins each chapter of Philida with a synopsis of what's going to happen. How does this affect your reading experience—does it spoil what is coming, or does it pique your interest?

  2. What does Philida's experience talking with the government official "Grootbaas Lindenberg" reveal about the way blacks and whites were treated in South Africa in the 1830s?

  3. Although Philida is the title character, she is not the only narrator in the novel. Why do you think Brink includes other voices? How does it shape the story?

  4. How does this representation of slavery in South Africa compare to what you know about slavery in the United States? And how does the novel compare to books you might have read about ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Philida does everything great fiction should: it captures the imagination, takes us to another time and place, moves us viscerally, informs us and leaves us feeling the need to do better in this world.   (Reviewed by Jennifer Dawson Oakes).

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Media Reviews
Library Journal

...a nuanced book of twists and turns, and Brink manages to generate sympathy for his ancestors, although not much (not that they deserve a lot). For readers with lots of patience and a willingness to be interested in the time, place, theme, and so on.

Booklist

Eminent white Afrikaans writer Brink tells a story that is rooted in his own family's ancestry and set in the Cape in the early nineteenth century, before the abolition of slavery. . . . This stirring novel opens up the horror, seldom addressed, of the oppression long before apartheid was the law.

The Daily Beast

Philida's body may not be her own, but her voice certainly is. Her complaint sets in motion a series of events that sends shock waves through the lives of everyone around her: 'One day there must come a time when you got to say for yourself: This and that I shall do, this and that I shall not.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An impossible love story... There is an astonishing frankness about the facts of life and a visionary lyricism in relation to these cruel facts. The "Acknowledgements" section details the genesis of the novel. In its way, it is as thrilling as the book itself. Extraordinary.

The Economist

In the hands of Mr. Brink, one of South Africa's most famous novelists, the land breathes; it feels alive...They are characters of long ago and far away. But such ghosts forever loom, and Mr. Brink pulls them close.

The Times (UK)

[Philida] combines an unflinching examination of the cruelties inflicted on the African people by their Afrikaner masters with an attempt to give voice to the tradition that sustained them ... [A] rich and complex novel ... A deep love of the South African countryside shines through, woven together with creation myths and earthy folk tales.

The Daily Mail (UK)

Philida is a very powerful novel, and its graphic accounts ... [offer] an eloquent indictment of racial and economic oppression.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)

A moving story...While this is a familiar story, it is one that must continue to be told, not least by white writers willing, as Brink is, to disinter the histories of complicity buried in their own ancestries.

The Guardian (UK)

There is much, particularly relating to the separation of women slaves from their children, and to the punishments meted out to runaway slaves, that is extremely harrowing. But the light and shade that Brink has skillfully introduced into his augmented family history make for a compelling and memorable novel.

The Daily Express (UK)

As much a biography and autobiography as it is a novel ... Brink tells this grand-guignol tale in harrowing style ... [A] successful inhabitation of a genuinely female sensibility. That [Brink] inhabits it while also writing in the loose-limbed patois of a 19th-century slave makes the achievement all the more astonishing.

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The Afrikaans Language

Afrikaans words or expressions are peppered throughout André Brink's novel, Philida. Brink started his career writing in Afrikaans, his native language, but switched to writing in English interspersed with Afrikaans which he uses to help maintain the authenticity of his characters. Many of the words can be puzzled out from the context of their use but some are a bit more of a challenge.

The Afrikaans Language Monument Afrikaans originated in the 17th century as Dutch settlers moved into South Africa. The language is rooted in Dutch but has been blended and influenced by the languages of the Khoikhoi people as well as those from slaves brought to the Cape region from Malaya, Indonesia, Madagascar and West Africa. German and French also influenced the language's...

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