Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schriener


This is one strange, strange book... and I'm pretty sure that it makes it on to the classics list because it is so remarkable for it's time, rather than that it is so marvelously written.  Essentially, this is a coming of age novel about Waldo, a poor farm hand, and Em and Lyndall, two cousins being raised in the farm house by their stepmother.  It takes place on an African farm, but the book is certainly not about the farm.

The book has two main themes:

  1. religion is good insofar as it agrees with your previously held convictions

  2. marriage is a prison that all women should seek to avoid; or if trapped, they should long for the freedom of widowhood
Neither theme is one that I feel too sympathetic about.  Untimately, the author sounds both convicted and confused about these themes too - maybe her writing this on an isolated farm in Africa in her teenaged years doesn't help... can you write about coming of age before you've really done it yourself?  It appears that she also cannot decide what type of a novel she wants to write, and so it appears that these disjointed sections have been glued together by overlapping characters and/or story lines. 
There are three main sections:

  1. a straight narrative mostly about Bonaparte Blenkins, who decieves Waldo's father, abuses Waldo, bamboozles the girls' stepmother and seems near to tearing the farm to pieces.  Waldo, Em and Lyndall never really do anything about Blenkins - they just wait for this time to pass

  2. a type of parable told by a nameless stranger that connects with Waldo's earlier struggles with religion

  3. a conversation (mostly one sided) between Lyndall and Waldo where Lyndall carries on about her desire for independance, while sending Waldo all kinds of mixed signals about the man that she is in a relationship with, and her feelings about him.

  4. It's arguable whether the story line about Em and her near-husband Gregory counts as a separte section or whether it simply serves to link Lyndall back to the farm again.
Are all these different story types of sign of the genius of the work or of the youthful inability to choose a style and work within it?  This book was definitely interesting, but not engaging enough to hold my uninterrupted attention (I must have put this down a dozen times before I finally finished it) and ultimately disappointing.

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