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Wan - Book Review

By Dawn Promislow

Published by Freehand Books, 2022

240 pages, Soft Cover

Reviewed by Richelle Shem-Tov

This extraordinary recently-published book is a first novel written by the author of a prize- winning collection of short stories, Jewels and Other Stories. The short stories, like the book, are set during apartheid South Africa of the 1970s.

"Wan", written in the first person, tells the story of a young woman living in the northern 'white' suburbs of Johannesburg with her husband, a lawyer, her two children and two (sometimes three) black domestic workers. They live in a comfortable home with swimming pool and garden. 

Both she and her husband are secular Jews, totally identifying with a progressive political outlook and the rights of the black majority to freedom from the chains of racial discrimination. However, like most others of their kind, they enjoyed the privileges of white rule. At the same time, they also lived in constant fear of the security police - of any sort of disclosure or connection with the activists of the anti-apartheid movement.

She herself is a gentle, rather introverted artist, highly educated and an avid reader. She is a devoted and caring wife and mother, considerate and warm towards her servants. She describes a studio in her large garden where she struggled to complete a painting.

In the garden, hidden amongst trees near the back gate, is another room. At the request of a friend, they allowed a man to live there in hiding. . The man worked for the resistance movement to overthrow the ruling white government. Of course, all in the household were sworn to secrecy. Her story revolves around her relationship with this person.

She also goes back in time to tell of her childhood and her home in a small Afrikaans town on the Vaal River. The river is a prominent feature in her paintings, though in abstract form. Towards the end of her story, she describes her life in New York, to where she and her family eventually emigrate.

Her story is that of a painting and other paintings – all intensely connected to her personal life in the South Africa of those times. Her art is depicted as being of "clarity and simplicity". These are the terms I would use to describe her writing.

"Wan" is deeply touching and exquisitely written. I strongly recommend it, not only to those who know and knew South African, but to all who love a good read.

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