Skinner's Drift
Lisa Fugard
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Skinner's Drift

Lisa Fugard
304 pages
January 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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Haunted by a terrible tragedy that decimated her family, Eva van Rensburg fled her home in South Africa and has spent the last ten years living in New York. Eva is bitterly ashamed of her South African heritage, even going so far as to tell her boyfriend that she is a New Zealander. When he discovers the truth and wants to actively confront her, to talk to her about her country, she tries as hard as she can to avoid discussing politics or her childhood.

But now it is 1997, and apartheid has been relegated to the dustbin of history. A new South Africa is steadily being reborn against the backdrop of a tumultuous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Eva's father, Martin van Rensburg, is dying, and as she reluctantly returns the country of her birth, she must not only make peace with Martin but also put to rest the ghosts of her childhood living on Skinner's Drift, an isolated farm settled along the banks of the untamed Limpopo River.

It is only through reading the dairies of her mother, Lorraine van Rensburg, that Eva is able to relive her early days on the farm, perhaps finally coming to terms with the terrible secret that protected her Boer father and ultimately diminished his stature in her eyes. For Martin is the archetype of the apartheid Boer hero, a character who embodies vitality, violence, and a mad passion for the land, his exhilaration in fighting - claiming what he believes is his birthright a piece of South Africa.

While Martin is caught up in the struggle to maintain white superiority in a country on the brink of racial unrest and inevitable change, Eva sees her mother as struggling to define herself in the shadow of her husband's beliefs. Certain that Martin is having an affair, Lorraine cloaks herself in a netherworld of denial and falsehood, shuffling around the truth, almost like "a magician with her feelings," overwhelmed and confused.

Lorraine is an English-speaking woman married to an Afrikaaner, both of them outcasts - he with his stutter and she with violent mood swings that often frighten her. She has an aching familiar loneliness, a cold-vaulted emptiness inside her that only Martin can fill. But Martin is preoccupied: the loyal Lefu, his kindly African ranch hand, always in Martin's employ, has discovered a dark secret: his boss is steadily killing animals, not hunting them with a rifle but shooting them many times with a machine gun, and Lefu's heart is "steadily becoming exhausted" from the weight of his secret.

When two white men are found brutally murdered on a neighboring farm, suspicion grows, tension mounts, and fear begins to lurk in the van Rensburg's bellies. Martin anxiously stockpiles guns, fences the house, and deploys local soldiers to safeguard the perimeter, while the young Eva looks on, desperately trying to control and protect her father and taking stock of the changing world around her.

The characters find themselves caught up in a convergence of political events beyond their control: invading disgruntled workers, now believing that the land belongs to them and high on liquor and dagga, are intent on killing white farmers. The tranquil farm of Skinner's Drift is ultimately shattered by shocking acts of brutality against the prevalent cruelty of white rule.

Meanwhile, the farm hand Lefu, his daughter Nkele - maid to Lorraine - and Nkele's young son, Mpho, are determined to hold onto their separateness, while also yearning for freedom. In this world, the Africans fear their white masters; it's a fear that is almost "like a membrane," fear and even anger enveloping all of their encounters with white people.

Author Lisa Fugard writes beautifully of the lush, luxuriant countryside, her passion and love for the country shockingly apparent. Perhaps Eva, upon her return, can heal the wounds and finally repair her fractured and splintered family, showing them once and for all how to live in this new South Africa.

The novel is a persuasive portrait and a forceful microcosm of a country on the threshold of undeniable change. But it is also a thrilling account of one family and their struggle to survive amid the winds of transformation. The van Rensburgs are a family in crisis,who must learn to recover, become accustomed to, and hopefully make peace with South Africa's irreversible past.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2006

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