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Another Woman’s Daughter, by Fiona Sussman.

September 20, 2015

Another Woman’s Daughter, by Fiona Sussman.  Berkley (2015), 304 pages.

4 stars

A compelling novel about a black South African girl, adopted by a white couple who took her back to England, about the mother she left behind, and her search as an adult to find her mother.

Fiona Sussman is a white woman who was born in South Africa and spent the first 25 years of her life there. Her father was a publisher who was active in the anti-apartheid movement, and her childhood home was full of other activists. She now lives in Auckland, Australia, where she works with her husband in a rural hospital. As she notes in this book’s introduction, she is aware of the problems of writing about people of different race and has drawn on a shared sense of humanity in daring to focus on them. I am very impressed with how well she is able to imagine and depict the Africans as well as the English in her writing. I see her as another example of how a person need not share a group’s biological heritage to write about them if one is sensitive, open and takes the trouble to listen to what others say.

Another Woman’s Daughter focuses on Miriam, the daughter of Celia, a black woman who is a live-in servant in a white suburb of Johannesburg at the start of the book in 1959. Their story is told in the alternating voices of Miriam and Celia. At first Miriam is too young to understand all that is happening around her. She experiences her mother and others primarily through her senses. Celia is aware she had “found a safe and comfortable corner” in a dangerous world and fears change. Michael and Rita Steiner, the white couple for whom she works are unable to have children of their own and are drawn to the bright, intelligent Miriam. When they decide to return to England, they want to adopt the child. Celia reluctantly agrees in hope that they can provide her with a better future than she could.

For Miriam, England and life with the Steiners is a bleak and lonely existence.. As a black in an all-white world, Miriam is lonely and feels unloved. While her adoptive father continues to treat her lovingly, his wife is brisk and dismissive of her. Promises which the Steiners had made to Celia to correspond and bring Miriam back to see her never get fulfilled. She is not even allowed to see her mother’s letters and loses all sense of her early years in Africa. Eventually Miriam finds a good friend whose loving family is from India and reaches out to her. Later she and young English man fall in love. But Miriam continues to feel her separateness in the English world. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Celia must face the crippling loss of her daughter and the difficulty of living with apartheid. She has problems finding decent work and is tortured because one of her sons has joined the resistance and is killed. Finally she is taken in by a white couple active against apartheid.

Twenty-five years after leaving South Africa, Miriam returns to search for the mother she has lost and the Africa out of which she was taken, a journey she feels she must take to understand who she is. Through friends, she meets Thabo, a black journalist idle because his newspaper is under surveillance. He takes her to stay with his family in Soweto and promises to be her guide in her search for her mother. With little information about her mother, the search is arduous. Miriam is forced to come face-to-face with apartheid and “tasted African life at its most raw.” On one hand, she exalts in being part of a society with others of her race, but on the other she is repeatedly humiliated by authorities because of her black face. She has “lived like an African, and laughed and cried like one.”

The search for her mother takes them all the way to the Cape a thousand miles from Johannesburg, through country that Miriam—and obviously Sussman—loves.

Africa wooed me, tantalizing my every sense. Its breath was sweet, its touch was warm, its beauty astounding. South Africa wrapped itself around me and held me.

Her time in Africa changes her, giving her a glimpse of who she is beyond her English persona. Yet she realizes that given her experiences she is neither completely African nor English but has something of both cultures in her makeup.

I thoroughly enjoyed Another Woman’s Daughter, and I learned a great deal about South Africa. Sussman tells a good story about a mother and daughter and writes with real grace, often becoming poetic in the process. Both her black and her white characters are varied and distinctive, never falling into stereotypes. She is adept at showing the horrors committed in apartheid while not damning all whites.

I recommend this book enthusiastically to all readers, especially those with interests in South Africa or in mother-daughter relationships or in complexity of inter-racial adoption.

Thanks for sending me a digital copy of this book to review.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2015 4:17 pm

    This could be one for me to consider.. I do seem to enjoy South African writers of any colour

  2. September 20, 2015 4:30 pm

    I read this one too, it’s published in Australia under the title Shifting Colours, and I interviewed the author for Meet a Kiwi Author. She’s a most interesting person! See http://anzlitlovers.com/2015/01/02/meet-a-kiwi-author-fiona-sussman/ And the good news is that she has another novel on the way:)

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