One of the many chilling things about this powerful, harrowing novel is that, for a tale of appalling inhumanity and suffering, Andre Brink had to look no further than his own family tree.

The patriarch of the slave-owning South African family at the heart of the story is named Cornelis Brink, a brother of one of the author's ancestors, in the early 19th century.

The eponymous Philida is a slave whose sexual favours have been enjoyed by Cornelis's son, Frans, for eight years, and she has borne him four children, on the promise that he would eventually reward her with freedom. One day in the 1830s, having realised Frans's promises were hot air, she goes to the Office of the Slave Protector to complain.

Loading article content

It's not hard to imagine the friction this causes back on the Brinks' farm, particularly with the intractable Cornelis, who has already committed horrific acts against Philida, justifying these with biblical quotations and frequently voicing sentiments such as "It's the whiteness of our boat that proves we are children of the Lord", despite his own mother being a former slave herself.

In Philida's journey to becoming a bolder, more assertive human being (which begins just as the British insist slavery be abolished in South Africa), part of the process is a rejection of Christianity, a religion for white folk which offers her nothing, and a cautious embrace of Islam in its place.

Brink helps us to understand the point of view of the white population, who genuinely fear financial ruin once slavery is outlawed but, if he's trying to present them sympathetically, his attempts are less than successful. The one white character we might expect to identify with, if only slightly, is the hapless young Frans, but his moral cowardice weighs too heavily against him. Mistakenly thinking he can redeem himself after refuting Philida's accusations with "It's a slave's word, and mine is a white man's word", Frans symbolises a society so rotten at the core that it corrupts everyone who benefits from it.

Philida thoroughly deserved its place on the Man Booker longlist, and there wouldn't have been any complaints from this quarter had it reached the final six.


Andre Brink, Vintage, £8.99