Cover Image: The Afrikaner

The Afrikaner

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A great exploration of post-apartheid South Africa. Dagnino's writing is precise and hard hitting as she explores atonement and grief. Zoe du Plessis as a paleontologist has to manage how her work may continue the racist legacies of European interest, has to grapple with her family's own legacy of engagement in colonialism, as well as the modern grief over her lost lover. Wonderful embedding of current pain against a legacy of widespread pain.
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Zoe du Plessis is The Afrikaner. She’s also a palaeontologist, who has lost her fiancé (and also her work colleague) in a car hijacking in Johannesburg. She wants to complete the work they were busy on in the Kalahari. Her own family history and secrets also emerge and threaten to disrupt her life completely.

When I observed that Adrianna Dagnino had spent only five years in South Africa, and written a novel from the perspective she chose, I approached with caution. Surely there would be some clangers – language perhaps, or interactions between diverse people groups that wouldn’t ring true. South Africa is a rainbow nation of very different people groups, with complex histories and relationships. I am happy to say that this was not the case. Whilst I am still wondering how appropriate it is for  a person who is a different nationality to write from the perspective of “The Afrikaner”, I found the elements of the diversity in the novel beautiful, non-judgemental and complementary, which was uplifting and inspiring. The plot was interesting, the tension nicely built, and the ending satisfying.

A diverting and interesting book.
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It’s always interesting to see ourselves, as South Africans, reflected through another’s gaze as author Arianna Dagnino does in The Afrikaner. A multi-cultural author with roots in Italy and now resident in Canada, this novel is based on time she spent in this part of the world.

It opens in the mid 1990s. Democratic elections are over and the new ANC government is in power. It opens with a bang, literally, as Wits-based Italian palaeontologist Dario Oldani is shot in a hijacking in Johannesburg’s CBD. He was the lover of Zoe du Plessis, another palaeontologist, also based at Wits University. She is ‘the Afrikaner’ of the title and the story is focused on her after the events of the tragedy.

She struggles to move on from the death of her lover. And she is snagged between the present and the past – caught in the pages of the diaries left behind by a series of aunts. These are women who died unmarried, women who had been loved once – but the men died early, and the threat of a curse hangs through their deaths.

Zoe and her brother, Andre, lost their parents young to a car accident. He has inherited and runs the family wine farm, Finistère, a place where Zoe retreats after Dario’s death to read through diary entries – again, to try to come to terms with the senselessness of Dario’s death.

Back in Johannesburg, she asks to take over Dario’s research in the Kalahari, where he had been excavating a site hoping to find evidence of early humans. Some of the most moving, picturesque scenes of this novel take part in this hot, scoured part of southern Africa. Zoe is accompanied by Sam Kaleni, a Rastafarian, and Koma, a shaman Bushman who she met years ago while excavating in another part of the world. Both men provide her with her some entry into a world that is not familiar to her.

Dagnino describes the beauty of this coruscating place with a depth that brings it alive: “It’s there that, for the first time, she encountered the power of geographical emptiness, the non-place where, as the Bushmen say, you can hear the stars sing.” The months pass as her team digs and yet, there is little evidence of human life in the caves, and morale among the team becomes low.

Interspersed with time in the desert are her trips to Finistère, where her brother André is bringing a black partner on board, a man named Cyril. The ‘new’ South Africa is barely born – and few farms have black partners in this deeply conservative part of the world, still. André is deeply aware of the changes that must be welcomed and that, “We are destined to become a cumbersome minority.”

There’s a deep sense of guilt in Zoe. Guilt at her Afrikaner origins, and at the fact that she did nothing to oppose apartheid and racism while studying in the 1980s. And musing on her relations with those who are not white, the painful truth comes to light, the lack of knowing that causes more guilt: “She grew up in Africa, but she doesn’t know them. There are millions of them in her country, yet – except for her interaction with a bunch of researchers and medical students – she hasn’t shared much with them. She doesn’t know how they reason, what they really think of whites, how they judge whites, or how much they hate whites.”

Enter too, a brooding Afrikaans writer, a stealer of stories from the silences, a man who has been in prison for his opposition to the system and for marrying a woman a woman who was not white, now dead. He is Kurt, an enigmatic man, a friend of her brother, who exerts a pull over Zoe as she starts to move out of her own grief, and so, in the midst of all, begins a slow, curious dance towards something more with this man.

The story is beguiling – with its elements of paleoethology, the deep need to find out more about our origins, mingled with the newness of the country where the people who have been separated for years are now circling each other with a mixture of hope and confusion. Continuing to be dodged by personal demons, Zoe is invited to take part in a shamanic healing by Koma and another resident Bushman shaman under the Kalahari night sky in prose that brings the strangeness of human experiences alive.

The theme of past and future, of searching for meaning in a past, even while that past might feel redundant, runs strongly through the story. Palaeontology serves as a metaphor – Zoe excavating her past and her past guilt as thoroughly as she excavates the sands in the Kalahari.

And so, an outsider shining a light on some of our stories – does it succeed? At times I felt the points were hammered home a little too unsubtly and Zoe’s immense sense of guilt doesn’t always ring true. Or, at least, I wanted more interiority to justify Zoe’s feelings. I also wondered about the choice of the title, which suggests that Zoe is emblematic of all Afrikaners, whereas one character cannot stand for all of a particular group. I would have preferred a title that was less abstract and did more justice to the beauty of the novel, the rich writing about landscape, palaeontology, and the birth pangs of the ‘new’ South Africa. So yes, this entertaining novel succeeds on many levels, shot with deep understanding of the complexities of this land at a particular time. Dagnino’s writing on landscape and the country, and the injustices inherent in Johannesburg’s geography, is acute.

The book works as a love story, as exploration both within and without, and as paean to a time in our country’s history when we were emerging into something new, with problems that still tentacle into the present.
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“Slow down, but don’t ever stop.”  Never stop at a red light. It’s one of Dario Oldani’s last thoughts as he becomes a victim of a senseless, fatal car jacking in a Central Business District area of South Africa. The tragic event of her lover’s death crushingly changes, while simultaneously cements the course of Dr. Zoe Du Plessis’ life.

Devastated with grief by Dario’s death, Zoe decides to take some time off from the university, and return for a visit to her family home Finistère – a successful winery run by her brother André. 

On one of her overnight stops, Zoe is seeking a solitary moment and in the quiet and darkness, she meets a man. This “thief of stories”, believes they did not meet by accident and suggests to her that they may very well meet again. Kurt, this mysterious stranger, plays a significant part in her life further in the book. 

Zoe arrives home in time to learn that André has hired on Cyril Kunene, one of the first black men to be the director of a South African winery. She has never had any interest in running the winery and welcomes the new director.

Zoe tries her best to cope with her mourning but we learn there is more to it - she feels responsible for Dario’s death. Zoe has been carrying a secret passed down through the generations that has added the burdens of fear and guilt to her grief. We discover there is an old curse on the Du Plessis family: the first-born female of the family would never produce children before their husband died. As Zoe reads her Great-Aunt Charlotte’s diaries throughout the book, we learn more about the past Du Plessis women and how the curse carried out in their lives. As a scientist, Zoe does not accept the credibility of a curse, but as a woman who has just lost the only man she ever loved, and broke through her protective walls, she can’t help but believe it.

When Zoe reports back to work, she requests to be sent to continue leading Dario’s unfinished work in the Kalahari. She is given a six month leave and recruits a team to find her “Homo”. Zoe dreams of making history by unearthing a human skull or skeletal remnant of an ancient people. Zoe is driven to honour Dario’s research but also, she purposefully wants to lose herself in Bushmanland, and exhaust herself to the point of numbness. Under the blanket of the desert, Zoe seeks to rid herself of the curse and arranges for the village shaman to try and cure her of the black spirit that is following her. 

Does Zoe lose the black shadow following her? Will she meet her enigmatic stranger again?

There are layers on layers in The Afrikaner - steeped in the history and current political reality of South Africa, the struggle for balance in power, the faces of the people. Dagnino’s narrative is superb. Her skill at bringing the colours, the smells, the dust of the desert, the curving passes and lush green landscapes to the reader’s mind is expert. The Afrikaner is an exquisite read. I cannot recommend this literary work of excellence highly enough. 

I thank Arianna Dagnino and Guernica Editions for most graciously providing me with the opportunity to read The Afrikaner.

The opinions expressed in my review are my own.
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Five Stars!!!
Thank you NetGalley, the author Adrianna Dagnino and the publisher for an E ARC of ‘The Afrikaner’. 
As a White English-Speaking South African now living in the Uk I couldn’t wait to start this book. It’s written so well it transported me home.
So many lines made me stop and close my eyes so that I could fully immerse myself in the feelings the imagery evoked. I ended up goggling Ms Dagnino as I was confused to see she was Italian, living in Canada. She had to have lived in Southern Africa, as it has bewitched her to her soul. I could see it in her beautiful writing. I was right. She did indeed spend 5 years living and writing as a reported in SA.

This book centres around Zoe, an Afrikaans Paleontologist is struggling to come to terms with the horrific murder of her partner in a hijacking in downtown Joburg. It’s set in 1996 and this resonated with me hugely. I was completing my Master’s degree in South Africa at this time and wrote my thesis on the Social Identity of White English-Speaking South Africans versus the Social Identity of Afrikaans South Africans, a theme that is highlighted in this book. 

I could write pages and pages on how brilliantly this book depicts transcultural, racial, romantic and magical elements, all woven into a evocative story. But all I will say is if you have lived in South Africa you will love this book, as it will pull at the magic Mama Africa has left in you and if you haven’t ever visited South Africa you will fall in love.
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Zoe du Plessis, paleontologist, Afrikaner who can trace her family history 300 years in South Africa, bereaved woman who has lost her lover and colleague to a car hijacking, is a woman who embodies the struggle of South Africa in 1996. Apartheid has ended and black government rules. Where do the former classes in the highly stratified society fit in the future, a very different future for everyone in terms of power, control and expectations?

The Afrikaner is a beautifully written novel that celebrates the beauties of Africa; presents the reality of the disappearing life of Bushmen of the desert; shows some of the reality of being a field paleontologist in a harsh environment worried by self doubt and declining expectations; and gives a view of the mine field that existed as all the disparate peoples of South Africa, black, white, colored, work out their new realities.

There are elements of magical realism in scenes among the Bushmen that evoke times long before our own. There are frank discussions of events that happened under apartheid, discussions among family, friends and others, some who prefer to put it fully out of memory. Atonement! A major sticking point even to be thought about among some Afrikaners.

This novel is such a combination of the personal, social, cultural, where even international aspects of life become involved. And then it is such a pleasure to read, to follow Zoe’s emotional journey of self and cultural identity.

Highly recommended

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
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A lovely novel that I really don’t regret requesting on NetGalley.

The Afrikaner is a perfect example for what I need for my Reading around the world challenge. It wasn’t just a story, but also a lesson.

I had a brief idea about the apartheid and the racial tensions in South Africa, but little more beyond that. The Afrikaner allowed me to get a larger glimpse into the struggle between the native population (from all sorts of tribes) and the Boers in South Africa. I felt deeply and truly immersed into the world of the Afrikaners, their colonial pride, so to say, and their shame afterwards, as well as the struggle between the progressive Afrikaners who start accepting the post-apartheid situation and those who refuse to accept the black people as their equals.

Although I’m well aware what a problematic place the world is, it still sometimes amazes me to see, read or hear about how some parts of the world are and remain to be, even after the world has become such a multicultural and, more or less, free place. Of course, things have, indeed changed, from the time the book is set in, but I think they’ve gone even more astray. The book presents us with the time when South Africa is just getting used to the fall of the Boers from the government and is under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, and shows the moral dilemma of the Afrikaners who are learning to embrace their black brothers. And nowadays, Afrikaners are a dwindling population continuously stuck in an identity crisis, who are slowly, but, according to the research I made, steadily disappearing in a world that’s no longer welcoming to them.

The Afrikaner, however, went beyond just the societal role of the Afrikaner in South Africa. The book also told the story of a paleontologist called Zoe who finds herself caught up in a family curse dating from the times of the first Dutch settlers who had clashes with the Xhosa locals. The story was quite entertaining all on its own and Zoe, albeit not the most elaborate character I’ve read about, was an interesting protagonist.

My issue with the book came out of the appearance and role of Kurt. He did have a practical purpose of the book, which was obvious from the very first scene he was in, but the developments at the end just didn’t seem very plausible and felt a bit like a ploy to lead the book to where it needs to get, instead of happening naturally.
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This story pulls you in from the first page as Zoe’s boyfriend is killed in a senseless act of violence in South Africa. Zoe is dealing with grief and deeply searching in both her personal and professional life. As a paleoanthropologist she is obsessed with discovering human fossils. At the same time she is uncovering family secrets through the reading of her aunts diary.  Somehow the author is able to weave all of this together and also give you a glimpse into to the culture, politics and beauty of Africa. Her writing is descriptive  and introspective. I found myself underlining and re-reading beautiful sentences throughout the book.
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I enjoyed the book and really liked it. The narration and storytelling was too good. Waiting to hear more from the author. Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the arc.
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This thoughtful and intelligent novel is set in South Africa in 1996 during the transition from the apartheid regime to the first democratically elected black government.  From the Cape to the Kalahari we follow Zoe du Plessis, an Afrikaner, as she searches for answers not only in her professional field as a palaeontologist but in her personal life. Multiculturalism, or transculturalism as some reviewers have termed it, is at the heart of the novel, as both whites and blacks explore issues of identity, guilt, atonement and, it is to be hoped, reconciliation. The tensions between the various racial and cultural groups are sensitively handled and the changing society in post-colonial South Africa is clearly delineated. Vivid descriptions of the African landscape and empathetic depictions of traditional ways of life enhance the reading, as does the scientific aspect of Zoe’s quest to explore the very origins of mankind. It’s a wide-ranging novel, with many issues being examined, and in some ways it’s difficult to decide what the primary focus is. Perhaps there is just too much here and a narrower focus might have been more successful. Although I enjoyed the novel I didn’t warm to Zoe herself, finding that she remained opaque to me, and that meant I wasn’t as emotionally involved as I would have liked. Nevertheless, it’s a well-written and well-paced novel that opens up post-apartheid South Africa with insight and empathy.
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Generation after generation of first born females born into the du Plessis family carry a secret.
Armed with diaries of those women who came before her, Zoe heads out into the Kalahari desert on a journey of self discovery. 

Unfortunately I could not get into this book.
While it started out quite strong, somewhere along the lines of Zoe's Kalahari expedition, the story lost me.
I did enjoy the writing, I just expected the story to go in a different direction.

Still an enjoyable read.
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Overall I think this is a well written and engaging story about one woman's search for answers. But there’s also a lot going on in this one. It took me a little longer than normal to get through it but once I did, I really liked the story. Set in South Africa after the apartheid the story follows a fossil hunter who is haunted by a family curse.  I loved the setting as well as the sheer brilliance of the main character. Most of all I loved the description of the people and the land.
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There is a lot going on in this book ranging from the murder of the main characters lover, to her family history, the use of paleontology as a comparison to political struggles, racism and inequality. It's complex and well written, but it just didn't speak to me. I just couldn't relate to the main character. I may come back and try again later. This book may have suffered from timing with other books of a similar nature so I may go back and try again at a later date, but as of this moment the book just doesn't speak to me. I think that if you're interested in books with a little drama, a little magic, and a wallop of socio-political commentary this book will be right up your alley. 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC for this book. All opinions are my own.
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The Apartheid era is over, South Africa is struggling with its new world of equality.  Zoe is a young paleoanthropologist and has to grapple with the car-jacking murder of her lover, dealing with guilt as a privileged white in a land of inequality, assessing her own prejudices, wondering about new prejudices she is seeing and leading a dig in the middle of the Kalahari for a year or so.  She also reads a diary of her Aunt with a bag of family secrets, the admission of her brother that is he is in a long-term relationship with a Black man and her new feelings for an older man, a famous writer who was imprisoned for his political views.
So there's a lot going on and maybe too many things.  Still, a reasonable novel for those looking to know something about South Africa.
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This is a superb novel, immense in its range and subject. Brave in its use of the science of palaeontology to be a simile for the more recent political struggle in South Africa, its people and tribes that live in that culture and inhabit the land.
Zoe Du Plessis is the product of the white heritage in South Africa able to trace her ancestry back over 300 years. But the political reality now has a new regime in power, post apartheid it is a time where many of her Afrikaner people are re-evaluating their futures. She is a recognised professor looking for evidence of the first humans that walked this planet. The cradle of civilisation is believed to be East Africa and her research department is looking for fossil evidence to support the emergence of hominoids and human society.
The changes the book explores are political, scientific and personal relationships. In Zoe’s case her life is devastated and brought into historical context by the death of her lover and colleague, Dario Oldani. 
It is always a sumptuous read; the authors words expand the panorama of the vast hinterland of the veld and desert areas. You feel a sense of place, it’s smells and sounds you see to distant horizons and understand those who have gone before. This writing infuses both the open spaces as well as the menace of downtown city roads and the fragrant coastal air.
I loved the why characters adjust to grief and loss no more so than Zoe but the fun runs through several individuals we meet.
The voice of the indigenous people; their simplicity, their oral traditions and the threat to their way of life and future is also introduced. Their ways of coping and embracement of an uncertain future is humbling and also a passed over concern, it seems like it has always been this way.
This is a book that talks about time; quantified by generations, scientific knowledge, imprisonment and opportunity. Zoe’s life is on hold. Buried like the elusive fossils she searches for and seemingly time-locked by superstition and shadows from her family’s genealogy.
How this is worked out makes this such a compelling read. In the process the dark past of Africa is shared on a canvas of the colours, traditions and culture of a fascinating geographical place.
I was moved by the sense of borders, the symbol of footprints and the question to the writer in the novel here who Zoe says can manipulate time.
It is a piece of literature that seems never ending in its focus, exploring issues that begin with an African Eve but offering in its conclusion that things can change, choices embraced and new relationships made. The ending is just wonderful and fitting, meaning the book will never leave me.
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This book was truly beautiful, lyrical, and compelling, and this is a story brimming with character and place.  Arianna Dagnino writes in a way that is attractive and hard to dismiss.  The Afrikaner is quite a reading experience, and one I would gladly recommend to others.
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As an ex South African I was immediately drawn into the African way of life and explored the bush which was handled with sensitivity and poise.  An exquisitely written book which deserves to be read
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It is always refreshing for a reader to come across a strong female character, fleshed out and with unambiguous drive; Dagnino's transcultural novel takes place in 1996 in South Africa, during the "turmoils caused from the Apartheid regime to the first democratically elected black government" and, thus, consists of a poignant narrative not only about the psychology of the heroine, Zoe, a privileged white Afrikaner, but also about the historical and political climate of South Africa.
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