This fascinating and informative novel by Tanzanian-born author Merk Behr is set in the (Orange) Free State of South Africa, the country in which he was brought up and where he studied. It is set during the two days leading up to the September the 11th (2001) attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City.
The chief protagonist, Michiel Steyn, who lives with his gay partner in San Francisco, returns to Paradys Farm, his childhood home in the Orange Free State somewhere near to the River Caledon and the state of Lesotho. He has come to join the rest of his family to attend the funeral of his charismatic mother. This return to his past forces him to confront his own painful memories and dilemmas.
In writing about this, the author successfully explores a wide variety of topics relating to South Africa's past, present, and future. He does this in an original way, mainly by describing Michiel's reactions to those, who he had not seen for many years and with whom he shared poignant and painful memories and his discussions about these things with his American therapist, whom he began consulting in order to save his relationship with Kamil, his partner in the US.
Michiel's multitude of feelings, memories, and experiences during his brief return home are welded together in a complex written mosaic. Frequently the author flits suddenly and without warning from one topic to another, just as actually happens in one's own mind. The range of topics covered is enormous: from Apartheid to AIDS.
During his brief return to his home, Michiel has to confront the girl whom he once loved (and may still secretly love), her husband to whom he was also once attracted, his old father who holds him in low regard, his brother who harbours many a grudge against him, his disgrace during his military service, and the grave of his dead brother Peet. This is all handled beautifully and interwoven with a sensitive exploration of the problems and hopes of modern South Africa.
In some conversations, the author writes in Afrikaans, and then immediately follows this with a translation. For example, " `Dis goed om die Kleinbaas weer op Paradys te sien.' Good to see the Kleinbaas again at Paradys." On the one hand, it helps enhance the writer's already excellent depiction of the setting of the story. On the other hand, it seems a little superfluous. I cannot decide whether or not these bilingual inclusions are beneficial. However, this is a minor point, and does not impair the book's excellence.
I recommend this beautifully written novel to anyone with an interest in South Africa, and the scarring effects of Apartheid on those who emerged from it.