THE MADONNA OF EXCELSIOR

Zakes Mda, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23 (258p) ISBN 978-0-374-20008-4

In vibrant prose infused with equal parts satire and social criticism, Mda (The Heart of Redness ) charts new emotional terrain exploring the Madonna-whore complex in a South African setting. Readers catch their first glimpse of protagonist Niki in the burnt umber brushstrokes of a Boer priest's canvases. Father Claerhout's models hitchhike from surrounding black townships to earn a pittance shedding their clothes for the artist-priest. While his intentions are innocent, those of the Afrikaner farmers Niki and her friends come into contact with are more prurient. Niki spends time in prison after her daughter, Popi, is born with the flowing locks and blue eyes of her Afrikaner father. Based loosely on true apartheid-era events and the notorious "Immorality Act," which outlawed miscegenation, the novel mercilessly examines the twisted mores of the times. A severe though often amusing social critic, Mda at turns belittles and exalts the women who bear dozens of "coloured" children by their employers while reserving his harshest characterizations for the Boer men who relentlessly pester African women. And Niki is a sympathetic—though sometimes frustrating—protagonist, who is thrilled by her power over the husbands of the Boer women who humiliate her. Mda's folkloric prose is filled with bitterness. As Niki is forced to submit to a white man's sexual demands, Mda writes, "[H]e just lay there like a plastic bag full of decaying tripe on top of her." Readers follow the lives of Niki, Popi and Popi's politically active brother, Viliki, for more than 30 years, into the post-apartheid era. While their anger simmers beneath the surface throughout the narrative, Mda's captivating characters ultimately find an uneasy peace in the newly free state. (Mar. 18)

Forecast: Mda's take on his native South Africa is a welcome alternative to the more established perspectives of Gordimer and Coetzee. The author picked up steam in the U.S. with The Heart of Redness, and this new novel has a good chance of being his breakout book. Mda will receive additional attention this month—Picador is publishing another original novel by him , She Plays with Darkness ($12 paper 224p ISBN 0-312-42325-X).

Reviewed on: 03/15/2004
Release date: 03/01/2004
Open Ebook - 272 pages - 978-0-374-70823-8
Paperback - 268 pages - 978-0-19-578315-5
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-312-42382-7
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