Friday, June 25, 2010
Within the space of a few weeks several people recommended that I read Barbara Trapido. Because I always do as I’m told (!) I picked her 2003 novel Frankie and Stankie, in part because it was set in 1950’s South Africa, a time period/location combination that was completely new to me. Despite the fact that it’s fiction, it’s impossible not to read this book as a memoir of growing up white under apartheid, and it’s really fascinating.
Frankie and Stankie are childhood nicknames of Dinah and Lisa de Bondt, the daughters of a left-leaning Jewish Durban mathematics professor and his German Christian wife. The book is narrated by Dinah and is in many ways a typical coming-of-age novel. We follow Dinah through childhood, adolescence, and her years at university in Durban. While Dinah’s day-to-day experiences are what you might expect (girlfriends, boys, school, parents, teachers), life under apartheid provides a constant dissonant background noise that continually intrudes into the narrative. Thus as some girls in Dinah’s class develop crushes on rugby players, another girl is “racially reclassified” and disappears overnight from their whites-only school. Dinah’s father refuses to build a fence around their property and he allows black workers from a nearly settlement to cut through their yard as a shortcut to their jobs in the white neighborhood. His actions are viewed by the neighbors as subversive and the family is treated with suspicion; Dinah’s mother fears a visit from the police.
This book offers no great climax or cathartic event. It’s clear that Dinah will eventually leave South Africa (as Barbara Trapido did also), but that’s not really the point. Trapido manages to illustrate the tyranny of South Africa’s oppressive regime not through one large event but through a continuous series of small observations and reflections--death by a thousand cuts rather than through one blow, if you will.
(Book 27, 2010)