The Way of the Women

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Marlene van Niekerk, Abacus, £9.99

Milla, an elderly Afrikaner woman, lies dying of a wasting disease on her farm in South Africa. Paralysed and bedridden, only able to communicate by blinking, she is dependent for the most intimate bodily functions on her "coloured" maid, Agaat.

It is the relationship between these two women that is the subject of this monumental and startlingly moving book. Tracking back over 50 years, we gradually piece together the story of how Agaat, born with a stunted arm and subsequently abused and abandoned by her parents, was adopted as a five year old by Milla to become part-daughter, part-servant on her isolated farm.

It is a one-sided account, as it is narrated by Milla. The dying Milla is forced mutely to listen to Agaat reminisce over their life together as she reads Milla's diaries aloud. Milla thinks she detects Agaat's sarcasm, but is powerless to stop her.

Back in 1950 Milla had seen it as a religious covenant to tame the "wild creature" into a "civilised human being" and she is caught between hesitant affection for Agaat and an acceptance of the rules of apartheid. She remembers not to hold Agaat's hand in public. When Milla gives birth to a son, Jakki, after eight years of trying for her own child, Agaat (now aged 11) is relegated to full-time servant, moved to a room in the backyard and kitted out in a black uniform with starched white apron and cap. "I know you don't like things on your head but you'll just have to like it or lump it," Milla tells her.

But Agaat's close connection with the newborn son brings a much more subversive and damaging shift in power. Milla's longed-for son places all his trust and affection with the maid, and Milla and her husband, Jak, are sidelined. The loveless marriage becomes increasingly tense as they watch the maid take charge in every area of the farm. Agaat is able to whisper to Jakki, "I am a slave but you are mine."

Yet Agaat's relative privilege on the farm isolates her from the other workers, who she in turn controls with the harsh discipline, backed up by food rations and religious rhetoric, with which she was tamed by Milla.

Translated from Afrikaans, this powerful and extraordinary book is written on many levels. It's about exploitation, possession and unequal relationships - the relationships between servant and master, child and parent, landowners and the dispossessed.

This work could be seen as an allegory of colonial exploitation, apartheid and the precarious steps towards reconciliation. But the author is apparently keen that we should not see it as too neat a symbol of the transformation of power in South Africa. However, the comparisons are tempting. Not long after democracy arrives in South Africa in the mid-1990s, Agaat faces the prospect of personal freedom with Milla's imminent death and the farm being handed down to her. She is likely to become the new "baas" - the madam has taught her maid every trick in the book.

This is a big book in every way: 600 pages long, sometimes confusing, but often breathtakingly lyrical and well worth the effort.