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Agaat Paperback – April 27, 2010
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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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*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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It's a monument to what the narrator calls "the compulsion to tell "expressing truths that are too heartfelt, revelatory and damaging for proud people to speak aloud - or even to admit to themselves in private"