Review by Sadhana Ramchander
The power a woman or an animal has when she is a mother—this is the idea that is central to Fiela’s Child. It also asks the question—is identity, which people give utmost importance to—an abstract thing after all?
It is a gripping story, set in 19th century rural South Africa, of a white 3-year old child, Benjamin, who has been brought up by Fiela Komoetie as one of her own children in a coloured household. When Benjamin is 12, he is suddenly taken away by census takers and is claimed by a white family of woodcutters. His identity is challenged and everything is different including his name.
The conflicts that Benjamin goes through with regard to his identity forms the crux of the novel. The integrity of Fiela in accepting this situation because she understands that the right thing must be done, the new mother’s unexcited acceptance of the return of ‘her’ child and the revenge of a mother elephant when her baby is killed by Benjamin’s new father…it is a powerful novel about emotions and instincts of women.
Yet it is also about the power of man. Dalene Matthee puts it thus, through the protagonist’s thoughts: “There was power in man that was different from the power of the sea or the power in the elephant. In man it was hidden where no one could see it and no one would know when it would emerge and where it would strike. For only man had the power to choose between destruction or preservation.”
The other thing I loved in Fiela’s Child is that elephants, trees, ostriches, the sea, the forest and the mountains are characters, as powerfully sketched as the people in the novel, and this, in addition to the strong storyline, makes it difficult to put down the novel.
(Fiela’s Child was given to me by Kamakshi when I visited their home in Mysore in December 2014, with a note to pass it on after I read it. Friends in Hyderabad—please feel free to borrow the book from me. My thanks to Kamakshi for this wonderful read.)