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Agaat Paperback – April 27, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Van Niekerk follows the widely lauded Triomf with a dark, innovative epic that trudges through the depths of a South African farmwife's soul. In 1947, Milla Redelinghuys is determined to turn her wealthy new husband, Jak, into the latest salt-of-the-earth farmer in her family's line. But her demands and manipulative personality cause an early marital rift that only worsens with time. As Van Niekerk follows young Milla through the decades, the author parallels it with the last days of an elderly Milla in 1996—miserable, afflicted with ALS, and reliant on her black maid, Agaat, for survival. Slowly, Milla's story—her abandonment and her masochistic relationship with Agaat—is revealed in all its ugliness. Clearly an allegory for race relations in South Africa, the novel succeeds on numerous other grounds: a rich evocation of family dynamics ; a chilling portrait of bodily and mental decay; and a successful experiment in combining diaries, the second-person, and stream of consciousness. Van Niekerk marshals it all to evoke the resigned mind of a dying woman who realizes, too late, the horrible mistakes that have made her life a waste. (May)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Seventy-year-old Milla de Wet is slowly dying of paralysis, unable to move or talk, helpless and in the care of Agaat. They are two women—white and black—living on a farm in South Africa at a time when the nation is undergoing huge racial and social change. But they have their own personal history between them. Van Niekerk shifts back and forth from the present to the past, and from first person to third person, including long, rambling diary passages, all from Milla’s perspective, to tell a tangled story that takes place during the years 1947–96. The sweep is as grand as the racial politics in South Africa and as intimate as the longings of one lonely woman for connectedness. Smart and assertive since she came to the farm with a crippled right hand, Agaat has been far more than a servant, to the eternal irritation of Milla’s husband, Jak de Wet. Jak is handsome but limited, for which he compensates by beating Milla. Agaat’s seething anger and sadness are barely concealed beneath the veneer of the loyal and dutiful servant even as Milla loses the ability to communicate and Agaat reads the diary entries. This novel stuns with its powerful sense of the rigors of farm life, desolation of a failing marriage, and comfort of a long and complex relationship. --Vanessa Bush
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 630 pages
  • Publisher: Tin House Books; 1 edition (April 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0982503091
  • ISBN-13: 978-0982503096
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #912,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Agaat is a beautiful, lyrical novel of such depth and complexity as I haven't read in a story for a long time. As a farm novel that spans the period of apartheid in South Africa, its central metaphor is of farming: nurturing, raising and growing but equally slaughtering, controlling, designing and laboring. Early in the novel, Milla de Wet clashes with the farmers of her region, her husband among them, over the question of sustainable farming. What is unmistakable is Milla's deep emotional investment in the land that she tills and her surrounding natural environment-- its ruggedness, its rhythms, its capacities and mysteries. This becomes especially apparent when she begins raising Agaat and teaches her all she knows.

Between an abusive marriage, childlessness, and a non-nurturing relationship with her own mother, one day, Milla makes an impulsive decision to rescue a physically and sexually abused three year old girl from amongst the black laborers on her mother's farm. This girl, that she names Agaat, has a deformed arm. She is tight shut as a rock, refuses to eat, or talk and stays huddled in the corner of her room. Milla approaches this project as a farmer and a missionary colonialist but the only thing that actually works, as Milla finds in spite of herself, is affection. The first few years of Agaat's life with Milla is one of mutual sustenance where Agaat's love for her meme is unsuspecting , complete and Milla's love heartfelt but full of misgivings. Agaat is after all a black child in a white home and Milla is not politically radical. Just about the time that Agaat's presence begins to become noticeable to the white community, Milla finds that she is finally pregnant.
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Format: Paperback
A paralyzed Afrikaner woman, Milla, stricken with ALS that leaves her not only mute, but entirely dependent on her Black caretaker, Agaat. She reminisces about her life, her abusive marriage, and the son she loves. In the hands of a lesser writer Marlene van Niekerk's second novel, "Agaat." would surely have descended into saccharine melodrama. Instead, with poetic prose and a perfectly pitched narrative voice, Niekerk weaves a complex intimacy between these two women, whose lives have been inseparably bound by knots so intricate they cannot even be undone by death. Agaat's attention, at times loving and others sadistic, speaks volumes, and it is in these scenes where "Agaat" most sings, enveloped in an achingly beautiful claustrophobia so finely rendered, I found myself catching my breath.

In each chapter Milla's flashes back to her abusive marriage to her cover boy husband Jak. This second person narrative reveals much of the inner workings and history her and Agaat's relationship on the family farm and their competition for the affections of her only son. At first interesting, overtime these sections grew a bit tiresome, the style overly authorial and the political allegory of Apartheid South Africa and power dynamics a bit too heavy handed. Despite these shortcomings, the relationship at the core of this story is so profoundly powerful that it easily overcomes such hindrances, offering a pair of characters in a dynamic relationship of master and servant that readers will not soon forget.
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Format: Paperback
It took me a couple of tries to truly embark on the reading of this hefty novel, which I'd bought on the occasion of my latest trip to South Africa three years ago, where local friends recommended it. But once I got past page 30 or so, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. Agaat is the coloured (not "Black", not "Hottentot", as some reviewers suggested) servant of Milla De Wet, née Redelinghuys, who suffers from a locked-in syndrome and prepares to die. As she does, she reminisces on her past, remembering events that took place (roughly) some 40, 30, 20 and 10 years earlier. All these recollections are organised around the complex, multi-faceted and ambiguous relationship that has developed between these two women. The two male characters in the book (Milla's husband and Milla's son) are part of the picture, but somehow mere background figures in the incredibly powerful stream of feelings, projections and manipulations that bind the two women to one another.

Indeed, "powerful" is the adjective that springs to mind when thinking about this novel, where the reader is trapped and strapped in the position of a mute spectator, as Milla De Wet is during her dying weeks. Marlene van Niekerk has achieved a genuine tour de force on many levels. In addition to the psychological complexity of the characters, the book's narrative structure is elaborate yet perfectly controlled, the style meets the highest literary standards, and van Niekerk also offers a sociological account of life on a farm in the Western Cape in the second half of the 20th century. The constant references to plants and animals gives an almost physical presence to Godmoedersdrift farm, which at times reminded me of other novels by South African authors (e.g. Nadine Gordimer's "Conservationist").
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