The Crooked Path

Written by Elsa Silke (trans.) Irma Joubert
Review by Waheed Rabbani

During the 1940s, Lettie Louw studies for a medical degree at Wits (University of Witwatersrand) in South Africa. An ugly duckling among her girlfriends at school, she’s still unable to attract a boyfriend, and her ball gowns hang unworn in the closet. After some heartbreak, she decides to concentrate on becoming a successful doctor.

Meanwhile, near Turin in Italy, Marco is teaching in his village school and courting Rachel, the daughter of a Lithuanian Jewish émigré couple. When WWII breaks out, Marco’s brother, Antonio, joins the Italian forces, while Marco helps Rachel and her family escape into the Alps. However, they are all captured by the Germans, transported to concentration camps, and subjected to enormous hardships.

Antonio is sent as a POW to labor in South Africa. Following Germany’s surrender, when a gravely ill Marco return home, Antonio beckons him to Pretoria. There Marco is treated by Dr. Lettie Louw. They eventually fall in love. It seems their crooked paths will finally take them where they want to be.

Some of this novel’s characters first appeared in Irma Joubert’s earlier book Child of the River, and are succinctly reintroduced. The “crooked path” is a major element in the premise of this story, which has a large cast of characters and spans two continents. The accounts of Lettie and Marco, who follow separate paths and then find them entwined, are narrated too concisely on occasion. Large periods of time, such as Lettie’s life at university, are described fleetingly. The gut-wrenching suffering faced by Marco, and as well as Lettie’s determined efforts, could have been shown in more dramatic form to add to the novel’s appeal. Also, some of the secondary characters’ lives are described only in sketches. However, the novel does present interesting aspects of life in South Africa during and after WWII.