Philida: Review for BookerMarks

Rating: 4

A Novel by Andre Brink
2012 / 320 Pages

The setup: Philida is the mother of four children by Francois Brink, the son of her master. The year is 1832 and the Cape is rife with rumours about the liberation of the slaves. Philida decides to risk her whole life by lodging a complaint against Francois, who has reneged on his promise to set her free.

His father has ordered him to marry a white woman from a prominent Cape Town family, and Philida will be sold on to owners in the harsh country up north. Unwilling to accept this fate, Philida continues to test the limits of her freedom, and with the Muslim slave Labyn she sets off on a journey across the great wilderness on the banks of the Gariep River, to the far north of Cape Town. Philida is an unforgettable story of one woman’s determination to survive and be free.

Philida was one of my first choices for the 3 assigned to us from the Man Booker Long List for our BookerMarks collaboration. I was drawn to it based on the description and the historical fiction genre. Philida is an epic tale of suffering, betrayal, hope, love and destiny and retribution. It is told from the perspectives of Philida, her master’s son Francois, an old slave woman whom has been granted freedom, Petronella and the master himself Cornelis Brink, (the right bastard).

Philida is the slave girl that has had four children from her owner’s son Francois. He has always promised her freedom but is now being made to marry a white woman in order to stave off bankruptcy. Knowing this means a uncertain future for Philida but most certainly potential separation from her children, she travels by foot to Stellenbosch to file a complaint against the family, for Francois has reneged on the promised freedom. Francois is the son of the Oubaas Cornelis. When we listen to Francois, we learn he is deeply in love with Philida, has known her all his life, watched over her all his life, loved her all his life, born 4 children with her and did promise her freedom, and the shoes to wear on her feet which go hand in hand with freedom. However, he is arranged to marry a white woman and before he can explain or discuss with Philida, she takes off to file her complaint forever altering their futures.

That I remember specially well. The shoes on my feet. What he say about the shoes he promised me from the very first day. Because he knew, I knew, as the whole world know: the man or the woman with shoes on their feet, they cannot be slaves, they are free, shoes mean that they are not chickens or donkeys or pigs or dogs, they are people.

Philida is a woman wise to her surroundings and to a broader sense of the way of the world which she consistently questions. Philida is not a believer that the ONLY way the LordGod wishes their lives to be is the way they must endure now.

Philida, it doesn’t work like that, there’s nothing you or I can change about it, this is just the way the world is.

Then we got to change the way of the world, Frans, she goes on nagging, otherwise it will always stay the same.

Too often I felt wretched horror and shame for the stories of the slaves in this novel. The wretched, cruel and inhumane treatment is gut-wrenching and told with unflinching prose and purity. At the time of the “auction”, where Philida is taken to be sold off in to the interior following the filing of her complaint, I was left with utter disgust and a rolling stomach. I wanted to cry over the inhumanity for these people.

Following the auction, and in her new place, Philida meets an old, devout Muslim named Labyn. As her relationship with Labyn deepens in respect she begins to move forward living a new and better life, one where she feels is her place now, but back in Zandvliet all is unraveling for the Brinks. The Brinks are completely chagrined and not prepared for what the loss of Philida means to so many.

The only slight flaw(s) I had with Philida is the way the author would “set up” each chapter with a little summary. That is fine, really, but my feelings were that these were written as though the reader is somewhat dense and needed a summary to understand what lay ahead of them in the following chapter (for instance: Chapter XX: In which the Story moves back to Zandvliet and the constant Tension between Francois and Old Cornelis until an unforseen yet unavoidable Event interrupts the Course of all the Lives drawn into it.”). Then I couldn’t decide if it was “cute” in a way or what. It also began to lag during Labyn’s teaching of the Islamic religion to Philida.

Overall, this may very well be a strong short list contender as it is indeed an epic piece of historical fiction, uplifting as much as it is difficult to read, with added hints of mysticism and religion sprinkled throughout. Albeit I’m not one to make such comment yet as this was the first to finish in the long list. It most certainly is a story that will long leave an indelible mark upon its readers, as it did for me.  Philida is a powerhouse of a woman determined to better her life, overcome the life of cruelty and slavery and discover the freedom she was so often promised. The journey we take with her is a very, very memorable one and in the end quite uplifting as well. 4 stars for me.

(as an aside, Google comes in right handy while reading Philida, as there are a great number of South African and Afrikaans terms and phrases that require definition in order to fully grasp their meaning.) (another note, no, the Brink’s in the novel and the author is not a coincidence.)

But they don’t have the right to say: Philida, now you free. That is something only I can say. And this I say today: Today I am a free woman. …Philida.