Book Review || Ancestral Voices by Etienne van Heerden

Perhaps it is simply because my days and nights have for so long been filled with academic reading that I really enjoyed this novel. I have been intending to read more South African novels, and this one happened to be the next on my shelf. I’m very glad it was.

I read the English translation, Ancestral Voices, to van Heerden’s Toorberg. I sort of regret not reading it in Afrikaans, because I know that something has been lost in translation – there really is nothing like Afrikaans for certain turns of phrase.

'Ancestral Voices' is a history and a mystery. It stretches from colonial times to the infamous apartheid era, and has a rich and interesting timeline, full of little tales and fables and myths about family members that every family would speculate upon. The family tree is the focal point, along with its so-called black sheep, its rotten branches, its bad blood.

Of course, with South Africa’s history, it is inevitable that the bad blood is blood that is not white. With the first indiscretion, Floris is not only expelled from the family, but so is the Moolman’s skaamfamilie – the family that came from the “shame” of mixing races. Much like mental illness, shame and sin was, for a people who alternately believed in the power of the Malay magician and their superiority as a Western race, something upon which to blame misfortune, something that is a punishment.

However, the novel makes it clear that it is not bad blood that causes degeneracy; it is wealth and greed; also privilege and entitlement – the very same privilege and entitlement that led white people to oppress those who they deemed lesser.

It was the entitlement of the pure blooded Moolmans that caused the rift between the families, and their belief that they deserved their privilege. Justice is important in such views of entitlement, for only a few are privileged to have justice. The magistrate, in searching for the real end of Trickle’s life, discovers the real crimes of the Moolmans and the family of their shame: the exclusion of generations from the same bloodline on an issue as absurd as skin colour. In searching for guilt, the magistrate uncovers the mind’s tendency to cling to morality and immorality as explanations for the misfortunes delivered upon the sons and daughters of the founders.

As for the plot, some have complained that it is too convoluted, there are too many characters, that the observations of the ghost make no difference to the story. However, I loved the intermingling of the past and the future and the contributions of the ghosts enrich the mythology of the Toorberg.

The novel was enchanting – the very word that caused FounderAbel to call his tract of land the Toorberg – and has a timeless, dream-like quality.


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