Summary and book reviews of Unconfessed by Yvette Christiansë

Unconfessed

By Yvette Christiansë

Unconfessed
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2006,
    360 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2007,
    360 pages.

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Book Summary

Slavery as it existed in Africa has seldom been portrayed—and never with such texture, detail, and authentic emotion. Inspired by actual 19th-century court records, Unconfessed is a breathtaking literary tour de force. They called her Sila van den Kaap, slave woman of Jacobus Stephanus Van der Wat of Plettenberg Bay, South Africa. A woman moved from master to master, farm to farm, and—driven by the horrors of slavery to commit an unspeakable crime—from prison to prison. A woman fit for hanging . . . condemned to death on April 30, 1823, but whose sentence the English, having recently wrested authority from the Dutch settlers, saw fit to commute to a lengthy term on the notorious Robben Island.

Sila spends her days in the prison quarry, breaking stones for Cape Town’s streets and walls. She remembers the day her childhood ended, when slave catchers came “whipping the air and the ground and we were like deer whipped into the smaller and smaller circle of our fear.” Sila remembers her masters, especially Oumiesies (“old Missus”), who in her will granted Sila her freedom, but Theron, Oumiesies’ vicious and mercenary son, destroys the will and with it Sila’s life. Sila remembers her children, with joy and with pain, and imagines herself a great bird that could sweep them up in her wings and set them safely on a branch above all harm. Unconfessed is an epic novel that connects the reader to the unimaginable through the force of poetry and a far-reaching imagination.

Excerpt
Unconfessed

He stood just in the entrance of the cell, a tall man with his hat in his hands. She could make out the cream of his necktie. She knew why he had come. She waited and could see him struggle with irritation and uncertainty as she remained seated on the bed. The smell had assailed his nostrils when he first entered, but now he could smell the bed. She let it reach him and relished the satisfaction of seeing his small step backwards.

She knew about him. The very famous new Superintendent about whom everyone talked. Once, when she was out in the yard, he had come clattering to visit the Warden. She had been invisible except as one of those people he had been so good at keeping obedient. He looked at her now as if she were a fool. She said nothing.

“What is that stench?” He did not ask this of her.

“Sanitation issa problem, Excellency.”

He turned abruptly to face the guard who remained invisible on the other side of the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think the author chose to shift from third person to first person narrative? What does this shift achieve?
  2. Do you have any mental image of Sila? What kinds of detail emerge from her deeply introspective voice?
  3. Do you have any mental images of the places that Sila lived in? Are there any small details help create these images in the absence of the kind of description that third person narrative would provide?
  4. Can we trust Sila's account of everything? Or are there moments when we believe her and moments when we doubt her?
  5. What do you think Sila keeps secret, and why?
  6. What does Sila say to her friend Lys that she does not say to her son, Baro?
  7. What kinds of things does Sila say to Johannes that she ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Unconfessed is rambling, circular and sometimes confusing; but it's also a lyrical, powerful and important piece of writing. Depending on your viewpoint you may side with the reviewer for Kirkus who describes it as "a gorgeous, devastating song of freedom that will inevitably be compared to Toni Morrison's Beloved" or Entertainment Weekly who thinks it "plods along like Gertrude Stein with a head cold."   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Booklist - Hazel Rochman

The dense meditation back and forth is much too repetitive, but the history is authentic, and Sila's brave, desperate voice reveals the vicious brutality as well as surprising discoveries of love and friendship.

Publishers Weekly

[The] absorbing, lyrical narrative is circular: she alternates between exhausted lament, seething rage and scripture-tinged poetic soliloquy.

Library Journal

Impossible to put down, this work deserves a place beside such classics as Toni Morrison's Beloved and Edward P. Jones's The Known World. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

A gorgeous, devastating song of freedom that will inevitably be compared to Toni Morrison's Beloved. But it deserves to stand on its own.

Entertainment Weekly

Yvette Christiansë, a professor at Fordham University, brings both a scholar's meticulous research and an academic's bloodless prose style to Unconfessed, which plods along like Gertrude Stein with a head cold. Grade: B-

The New York Times - Uzodinma Iweala

Sila, her voice alternating between lucidity and lunacy, must in turn represent her abused people. Yet she does not speak strongly for them. Her language — fragmented and staccato, interspersed with ruminations in italics and phrases in Dutch — is meant to convey a poetic madness it cannot quite achieve. Rather than locking us in Sila’s world, the half-step toward insanity bars us from gaining access to her emotional core. As a result, we remain distant, unable truly to feel Sila’s destabilizing sadness and rage. She becomes merely an object of pity.

We read on, though, because Christiansë is able to create an enveloping air of mystery in her slow revelations of the specific nature of Sila’s crime and punishment. This mastery of suspenseful plotting shows in both the present action and the flashbacks, even if the language that stitches them together can prove a bit weak.

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Beyond the Book

Yvette Christiansë was born in South Africa under apartheid and emigrated with her family via Swaziland to Australia at the age of eighteen. She now teaches African American literature and post colonial studies at Fordham University. Unconfessed is her first novel, following a collection of poetry, Castaway, published in 1999.


Modern Day Slavery - did you know?
According to the US State Department, slavery is now the third largest type of illegal trade in the world (after drugs and weapons); every year between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders with about 17,500 entering the USA. Many advocacy sources put the figures much higher, for example some say that about 1 million ...

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