The Story of an African Farm by Olive Shreiner

The Story of an African Farm is just that, a tale spanning many years which tells the tale of a farm inhabited by Tant Sannie, her step-daughter Em, an orphan called Lyndall an overseer referred to as the German and his son Waldo. In the first part of the book their lives are disrupted by the arrival of Bonaparte Blenkins – an Englishman who soon alters the lives of all the characters on the farm. And it is another arrival in part 2 which drives the narrative of the rest of the book.

There were many things I loved about this novel. Both the characters and the setting were wonderfully drawn, and the opening paragraph of the novel immediately transports the reader to Africa:

“The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.”

Shreiner paints the central characters with both sympathy and humour, and raises many universal themes such as coming of age, inequality, feminism, the meaning of life… This book really seems to cover everything. Despite some moments of despair, Shreiner always manages to balance this with hope in the same way that sadness is balanced by humour – and this I think is what raises this book above many others. No matter what happens to the characters, they always continue to hope:

“Nothing lasts forever, not even the night.”

I did find the second half of the book to be less driven by narrative and more reflective and, on occasion, I became less engaged with it as a result. However, the book is worth reading for the first half alone and, although I could say a lot more about it here, I will keep my commentary brief in order to allow you to discover this book for itself.

Image from Wikipedia

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