Douglas Thomas is a white teenager in Cape Town, South Africa, in the late 1970s. He lives with his mother, father, and twin brother Marsden, and most of his life is spent in school, surfing, and hanging out with his friends. When Marsden dies in a freak accident, the family falls apart: Douglas’s father leaves, and his mother uproots the household to live in the harsh desert town of Klipdorp, in the Karoo region, where she spends her time painting. Douglas must learn to cope with the loss of his twin, as well as the small town mentality of Klipdorp and its residents. Two people enter his life who will permanently alter his worldview: a black gas station attendant named Moses, who is trying to restore an old Volvo so that he can escape to Cape Town (just as Douglas dreams of escaping back “home” to Cape Town), and Marika, a hardened but kind girl with a violent, racist father. Through his friends and the more narrow-minded residents of Klipdorp who try to bring them down, Douglas learns to stand as an individual, and as an adult.
Blacklaws has created a very vivid, engrossing story with spare prose; the characters and environment transported me to unfamiliar territory very successfully, and my engagement with the text never waned. The language is peppered with a great deal of regional slang that will be unfamiliar to most readers outside South Africa, but it adds to the atmosphere. Each of the supporting characters is convincingly, perceptively drawn; my only regret is that the novel was so short. It is not one I will forget soon, and I highly recommend it to anyone who might value a thoughtful South African coming-of-age story.