cover image Ancestral Voices

Ancestral Voices

Etienne Van Heerden. Viking Books, $21 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-670-82831-9

The hub of this powerful, spellbinding novel by prize-winning South African author van Heerden is the death of young Noah, bastard child of CrazyTillystet Moolman. The mystically gifted Noah, fathered by a wandering water-diviner, fell or was pushed into a drilling shaft. Three sets of narrators disclose subsequent events: the humane magistrate sent to probe the affair, and members of two Afrikaner families who live in paradisal Toorberg--the proud, grasping Moolmans and their humble neighbors, the brown-skinned, blue-eyed Riets. The latter descend from English missionary James Read; having bred with native Hottentots and a renegade Moolman, they are dubbed ``Skaamfamilie''--family of shame. The two families conspire to hide the manner of Noah's slow dying. The tale unfolds circuitously through time, as living and ancestral voices relate their individual histories, from FounderAbelOK Moolman--harsh, mad and rapacious--to policeman Abel, the motorcycle tough who arrests his mixed-blood cousin for preaching resistance in black townships. The procreative barrenness of the Moolmans becomes a theme as haunting as the land's growing aridity, while the residents' ceaseless quest for water parallels the magistrate's inquiry into collective guilt and the law's meaning. This is the first of van Heerden's works--two novels, short stories, poetry--to be published here. He will be hailed as an important voice in South African fiction. (July)