This excellent first book by Rachel Zadok explores the dark secrets of a life haunted by a bizarre childhood lived on a small farm in the South African veldt. We meet Faith as a girl of five. A solitary child, she spends her days following her mother Bella around the farm as she tends vegetables, cooks and cleans. Once a week, she and her mother take their produce into town where they set up a stall in the market and listen to the women gossip.
We soon find that Faith is never really alone. The house and orchard are peopled by fairies which inhabit her mother’s sick mind. The fairies, with strange names like Tit Tit Tay and Dead Rex, are mostly malevolent, and Bella’s paintings of them hang on the walls of the house. Their eyes watch Faith as she walks past, and she knows them to be alive and dangerous. They lurk in the corridor as she sleeps, and we feel the fear of the small child sent down to fetch squash from the cellar, knowing that the dreaded tokoloshe is lurking among the vegetables. “Don’t go into the orchard alone,” her mother warns her, “Tit Tit Tay will steal you and turn you into a monkey child”
Quite early in the book Faith‘s father leaves. For days…weeks.. Bella puts on her best dress and make up every evening and they sit out on the stoop waiting for his return, but he doesn’t come.
After the departure of her father, her mother, always unbalanced, slips into a dark world of madness. She spends her days in bed and when Faith enters her room Bella doesn’t seem to know her. She becomes a frightening stranger to the little girl rather than the mother she once knew. Eventually a family friend summons Nomsa, a young black girl who moves into a hut on the compound. Nomsa quickly sets the house to order and cooks, cleans and tends the vegetables. She has a sunny personality and is always laughing and singing. Although Bella ignores her presence, Faith grows to love her.
Bella, emerging at last from her room, begins an affair with Oom Piet, an unpleasant market supervisor. Faith, unaware of what is really happening, feels uncomfortable when he comes to the farm. One night Nomsa is shot in her bed. Bella is charged with her murder and is sent away to an asylum for the criminally insane. Faith, bereft without family or her beloved Nomsa, goes to live with an aunt.
The second half of the book finds Faith as a young woman living in Johannesburg with Mia and Molly, her mother’s friend and her daughter. Faith seems successful but clearly isn’t happy. She receives the news that her mother, whom she hasn’t seen for ten years, has died, and learns she has inherited the farm. She begins to think obsessively about the farm, which she still thinks of as home, and eventually she leaves the city and returns to the veldt.
The farm is inhabited by a dour tenant farmer and his family. Faith is surprised that they’ve been living in outbuildings and not in the house. Unwillingly they help her to clean the house, and she moves in. The fairies are gone from the walls, and she finds them stacked up in a barn, the canvases damp and warped. She feels dislike from everyone and assumes it’s because her mother was a murderer. After shopping in town where she meets one of the gossips, and has an encounter with Oom Piet , Faith, like Bella, feels herself descending into madness as memories long erased come creeping back. In the shocking finale of the book we find the awful truth about Nomsa‘s death.
This is a beautifully written and crafted book which paints a vivid picture of the landscape and heat of South Africa. It also paints a picture of childhood that rings painfully true: the innocent acceptance of life with all its joys and fears. A really good novel. Read it if you can.