Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: "The Children's Day" by Michiel Heyns

The Children's Day was published several years ago in South Africa, the author's homeland, but it didn't come out in the United States until 2009. It's fiction, but it reads like an autobiography. Readers who enjoy learning about other cultures should give it a try as well as people who like coming of age stories.

Michiel Heyns opens the book in 1968 with Simon, thirteen, and his private school teammates receiving an offer from another school to play in a tennis tournament. The boys scoff at the idea because they perceive this other school as being inferior, but their coach persuades them to accept. As the day arrives and they meet the tennis team, Simon realizes he knows one of the players. His name is Fanie van den Bergh. The two had been classmates back in Simon's hometown, and this unexpected meeting triggers distant memories. The story then is divided between flashbacks from primary school and the present tennis match as Simon ruminates on several life-altering episodes, many of which involve Fanie.

Narrator Simon is an adult reflecting back on his child self as he navigates the world of his small village. Encounters with girls, favorite teachers, feared teachers, a stranger who comes to town on a motorcycle, the telephone operator who refuses to speak her standard phrases in Afrikaans before repeating them in English, and the dour veterinarian who has to deal with a potentially rabid meerkat all leave their impressions on young Simon. Mostly silent Fanie--dirty, poor, emotionless, simple Fanie--also affects Simon in ways he doesn't even understand until the evening after their tennis match, when Simon comes to an understanding of himself in a literal thunder and lightning storm.

Simon must also figure out where he fits in his country fragmented by apartheid. Though his parents are both white, his mother is Afrikaner and his father English, and Simon never feels quite accepted by either culture. He doesn't meet many Bantus, or blacks, but there is still an undercurrent of white supremacy from some of the town leaders. Race itself is not a big factor in this story, but the sense of belonging, which permeates and transcends all cultures, is important. Simon would rather read than play sports, although he is good at tennis. However, even that sets him apart as most of his classmates prefer rugby. He does his best to come to terms with who he is and to think for himself. Near the end of the book he must make a difficult choice and then accept the consequences. He also must face his true feelings about Fanie and reconcile his childhood with the adulthood he is stepping into.

Heyns is a perceptive writer, able to describe childhood emotions and reactions while at the same time looking at them from a wiser adult's viewpoint. He chooses scenarios that refine the process of growing up, scenarios that most people can relate to because they also experienced them. Maybe the details are different, but we all learned the same lessons about self-identity and what it means to be mature.

Other South African authors:
Alan Paton
Nadine Gordimer
J. M. Coetzee

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