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The Way of the Women (2010)

by Marlene Van Niekerk

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3942150,687 (3.99)52
Focuses on the relationship between Milla, an aging white female farmer in South Africa, and Agaat, her black maidservant, in a story set near the end of apartheid.
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» See also 52 mentions

English (14)  Dutch (5)  Italian (2)  All languages (21)
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This is an extremely demanding book. Not only does it approach doorstop territory at nearly 600 pages, but it also bounces the narrative around within a 40-year period stretching from the mid-1950s through the mid-1990s. Stylistically, author van Niekerk abandons traditional forms and jumps from unpunctuated, free-form diary entries to second-person narration to random chunks of stream-of-consciousness babble. Set in South Africa and translated into English for the American market, it’s set against the apartheid and political upheaval of that time and place – a background with which most American readers are totally unfamiliar. And if all that isn’t enough, the plot centers around and is told almost completely from the POV of a woman dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), and who is no longer capable of communicating verbally or in writing.

So why would anyone choose to tackle such a monumental project?

Perhaps it’s because van Niekerk is a master at laying out the breadcrumbs that lure the reader into the tale: who is Agaat, and how did this native African woman become such an integral part of the white de Wet family in an era of strict national apartheid? Is she nurse or servant, slave or “adopted” daughter, victim or master manipulator? Is it the reader’s imagination, or is there a definite “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” vibe going here? (All these questions eventually get answered – more or less – but none ever really deals with the soul of an abused, nearly feral child reluctantly spirited away to a fairyland she couldn’t understand, only to be expelled after a few short years for by circumstances she could neither control nor comprehend.)

Or perhaps it’s because the clash between the book’s main characters, told mostly in jumbled retrospect through diary excerpts, is as mesmerizing as a slo-mo train wreck. You know how this is going to end, but can’t look away.

Make no mistake about it – virtually all the characters in this book are monsters. From the brutal husband to the castrating wife to her domineering mother and perhaps even to Agaat herself – they slash and claw and manipulate one another without regard for the consequences. This is a tale of blood and fire, of a twisted marriage that spawns emotional cripples, of thoughtless cruelty based on race and social position, all coming to a head in the mind of the dying Milla.

The description of Milla’s descent into ALS is not for the faint of heart. This horrible disease slowly takes away muscle control – usually the ability to walk first, then use of the arms and hands, then the ability to sit upright. Bowel and bladder control are lost. Swallowing become difficult to impossible. Speech functions are lost. The patient’s world closes in tighter and tighter and tighter – but all the while, the brain is functioning. The patient *knows* what is happening but is helpless against it.

Amidst all this high drama, the often-lyrical writing shows up in sharp contrast. Van Niekerk’s roots as a poet are never far below the surface. Whether the reader welcomes the atmospheric cascades of words and images or merely considers them unnecessary verbiage in an already over-inflated tale will have a great deal to do with their enjoyment of (or impatience with) this work.

Readers who opt to take up the challenge should read the Glossary first, and then dig in for a difficult few hours as the rhythms and enticements of this compelling novel take hold. ( )
  LyndaInOregon | Mar 24, 2021 |
I just finished reading this masterpiece and my head is reeling. It is a book that requires a lot of patience, as at times it seems that little is happening, yet I found that I hung on every word, highlighting lines and paragraphs to be reread later. It is a complex and very internal story told through diary entries, disjointed prose, and the thoughts of a completely paralyzed dying woman. It explores the ever-changing relationship between two very strong women - one a white land owner and the other a black maid/daughter/nanny/caregiver/competitor. The interactions between them and their relationship with the white woman's son is painful, at times exquisite, and often conflicted.

I was mesmerized by the prose, deeply touched by the humanity, challenged by the multiple story lines and intensely intimate relationships, and found that though the book was very long, I was never bored. This will surely be one of my top books of 2017. ( )
  njinthesun | Apr 10, 2017 |
This is one of those books that I wanted so much to like. I had many moments where I recognized how good of a book it was, but I just never really enjoyed reading it and I think the fault is mine.

Agaat takes place in South Africa and tells the story of a white woman, Milla, who has advanced ALS and is mostly paralyzed, and her black maid, Agaat. The complicated relationship between the two women is slowly revealed throughout the novel.

The narrative style can be quite difficult to digest, and while I appreciate it, I don't think I had the patience for it while I was reading. The story is not told in chronological order and much of it is told without complete sentences. There are a lot of other liberties taken in the writing that made it difficult for me to read, and I was just never all that excited to pick it up. But again, I suspect the fault is mine because I think it is actually a really good book. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
Not an easy read for a broad variety of reasons but well worth the journey. ( )
  AntT | Jan 24, 2015 |
Not an easy read for a broad variety of reasons but well worth the journey. ( )
  AntT | Jan 24, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Van Niekerk, Marleneprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Heyns, MichielTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prandino, LauraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Focuses on the relationship between Milla, an aging white female farmer in South Africa, and Agaat, her black maidservant, in a story set near the end of apartheid.

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