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21 April 2010

Book Review: The Story of an African Farm

The Story of an African Farm
by Olive Schreiner 

The Story of an African Farm is a novel narrating episodes from the lives of three children as they grow up on a farm in South Africa: through dreamy yet visceral prose, the reader learns of Waldo’s spiritual unrest, Lyndall’s fierce and far-reaching ambitions, and of the stolid Em, who is sweet but no fool. The narrative is evocative in its description of a different time and place and a unique culture.

The Story of an African Farm is a mess. There is good material to excerpt as food for thought but the narrative is disjunct and the reader is hard-pressed to find much of a cohesive narrative thread.

The book is, ostensibly, divided into two parts; in Part I, the reader struggles through episodes wherein the children fight an evil and corrupt man who is trying to take over the farm. Yet they don't really fight. They hunker down and wait for it to be over which, eventually, it is. And when it is over, Part II begins with a waxing, verbose first-person-plural description of Waldo's journey from utterly faithful Christian to atheist. It is a great read, but it doesn't fit. At all. Then, the plot continues moving along but, like the plot prior to the grandiloquent philosophical section, the ensuing storyline is rife with narrative holes and difficulty. And interrupted with more rhapsodic philosophical episodes. It's almost as if Schreiner couldn't decide what kind of book she really wanted to write. She rushes the reader through life experiences in a way that highlights that she is not so interested in what the characters are doing but what they are thinking. Or highlighting what she thinks WE should be thinking.

So, in this sense, it isn't the story of an African farm at all (though there are some fantastic descriptions of a Dutch wedding and the landscape of the farm and its surrounds, the dust, the dirt, the lifestyle) but a story of the confusion of coming of age. And written, it seems, by one who was still confused about coming of age and what that really means. Schreiner says it best herself in the words of a stranger talking to Waldo in the karoo; "A confused and disordered story - the little made large and the large small, and nothing showing its inward meaning. It is not till the past has receded many steps that before the clearest eyes it falls into co-ordinate pictures. It is not till the I we tell of has ceased to exist that it takes its place among other objective realities, and finds its true niche in the picture. The present and the near past is a confusion, whose meaning flashes on us as it slinks away into the distance."

In reading the above quote, one begins to wonder if Schreiner structured her book to purposefully fulfill the sentiment expressed. And if not, one wishes she had written her book, put it away, and come back to it 20 years later to edit and reorder before publishing.

Nevertheless, it was a read I'm glad I undertook. And scattered throughout are wonderful food-for-thought-and-reflection moments;

"All things on earth have their price; and for truth we pay the dearest. We barter it for love and sympathy. The road to honor is paved with thorns; but on the path to truth, at every step you set your foot down on your own heart."

"In the end, experience will inevitably teach us that the laws for a wise and noble life have a foundation infinitely deeper than the fiat of any being, god or man, even in the groundwork of human nature. She will teach us that whoso sheddeth man's blood, though by man his blood be not shed, though no man avenge and no hell await, yet every drop shall blister on his soul and eat in the name of the dead. She will teach that whoso takes a love not lawfully his own, gathers a flower with a poison on its petals; that whoso revenges, strikes with a sword that has two edges - one for his adversary, one for himself; that who lives to himself is dead, though the ground is not yet on him; that who wrongs another clouds his own sun; and that who sins in secret stands accused and condemned before the one Judge who deals eternal justice - his own all-knowing self."

In describing Em, the stolid, sweet character, Lyndall says, "(She is like the) accompaniment of a song. She fills up the gaps in other people's lives, and is always number two; but I think she is like many accompaniments - a great deal better than the song she is to accompany."

"There must be a Heareafter because man longs for it? Is not all life from the cradle to the grave one long yearning for that which we never touch? There must be a Hereafter because we cannot think of any end to life? Can we think of a beginning? Is it easier to say 'I was not' than to say 'I shall not be?'" 

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