Written by Dan Sleigh
Review by James Hawking

The first Dutch settlement of the area around the Cape makes up a large part of South Africa’s founding myth. This W. A. Hofmeyr Award-winning novel opens with characters like Commander Jan van Riebeeck, remembered as the colony’s founder. Islands moves back and forth between Mauritius and continental Africa with sideways glances at Europe and the Batavia colony in the East Indies. The years from 1650 to 1710 are covered in an epic fashion, with the story organized around Pieternella, the daughter a Hottentot woman bore to one of the colony’s founders. Major characters include her father, guardian, husband, and the loyal family slave. Alcohol and tobacco become weapons to obtain cattle and, eventually, land and slaves. The worst villain of the piece may be the Dutch East Indies Company, a faraway entity, ruining the indigenous peoples’ ways of life and restricting the colonists’ efforts at economic development and political freedom, while enforcing bizarre and slanted justice from nine months’ voyage away.

Three voices work together to bring Islands alive. Sleigh, a researcher in the South African national archives, shows a grasp of South African history based on an expertise deeper than that which can be obtained by ordinary research. Johannes Guilielmus de Grevenbroek, a clerk writing sixty years after the first events, narrates the events in a fashion that creates the sensation of history being developed. Finally, the noted South African author André Brink has delivered a smooth translation from the Afrikaans, retaining enough of the original Dutch and African words to give a flavor of the early stages of the language that emerged. Highly recommended.