Philida is a knitting girl, a slave in the household of Cornelis Brink whose job is to knit clothes for the family. She has four children by her master’s son, Frans, but, in 1832, Frans has been ordered to marry the daughter of a prominent Cape family whose fortune is needed to bail out the Brink farm. Philida and her children will be sold on to a new owner. With talk of liberation for slaves being imminent, Philida lodges a formal complaint against Frans, stating that he has reneged on his promise to manumit her. This is the beginning of Philida’s journey into freedom and independence, though there will be much danger and heartbreak on the way.
The novel grips from the outset. The complex tensions between the Brink family and its slaves are explored with great subtlety and compassion and are illustrated not only through the relationship between Philida and Frans, which is one of genuine love until it is compromised by Frans’ cowardice, but through the figure of Ouma Petronella, the freed slave who is Cornelis’s birth mother. In the second half of the novel, once the slaves have gained their freedom, there is exultation, yes, but also fear on both sides of the consequences of unravelling the relationship between them knitted together over generations of common dependency on the land.
When the voices of Philida, Frans and Cornelis, which narrate the first half of the book, give way to a self-consciously authorial voice in the second half, we are reminded that, as Brink explains in his afterword, this fiction is closely based on his own family’s history and that the roots of the Rainbow Nation are not as black and white as we might think.