An ambitious debut novel from young Johannesburg writer Behr
revisits 1970s South Africa - here, to tell of a family that
conveniently embodied many of that country's familiar pathologies
and distortions. While not exactly a morality tale, the story that
ten-year-old Marnus Erasmus tells is nonetheless shaped and
determined by the phrase "the smell of apples" - apples that are
sweet until they rot and stink. This handy metaphor for the society
Behr describes is carefully worked out in the narrative that young
Marnus relates, alternating with brief dispatches from the 1988
Angolan front, where the now-adult Marnus is reluctantly fighting.
As he recalls what was in many ways a typical summer, he innocently
reveals all the bigotry and hypocrisy that he learns at school, at
church, and to some degree at home. Marnus's father, a South
African general contemptuous of blacks, talks sententiously of
defending the country "whatever the cost"; his mother, a former
opera singer, reflects a relatively more humane if paternalist
attitude, as does his older sister, Ilse, whose visit to Holland
has made her critical of the status quo. Marnus describes a
seemingly happy family living in idyllic circumstances, even though
this sweet life, like the country itself, is rotting at the core.
When Marnus accidentally learns that his mother is having an affair
and then witnesses his father sexually molesting Marnus's best
friend, Frikkie, the sweet smell of apples is gone forever. "In
life," the older and now fatally wounded Marnus observes, "there is
no escape from history." An acute, if sometimes schematic,
rendering of a time, a place, a family, and a terrible obsession
with race and identity that came close to destroying the beloved
country and all its peoples. (Kirkus Reviews)
Marnus is terrified he will not fulfil the expectations of his
elite Afrikaner family who are certain of their superiority. But
when Mr Smith arrives, things start to change, affecting Marnus's
values and everything around him that he he holds dear. Mark Behr's
debut novel and the recipient of numerous awards including South
Africa's biggest literary prize, the M-Net Award, as well as the
Eugene Maris Prize and the CAN Literary Award. In the UK the book
was shortlisted for the Steinbeck Award and the Guardian Fiction
Prize, and received the Betty Trask Award. In the USA the novel won
the Art Seidenbaum Award from the Los Angeles Times.
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