Notes from underground

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Towergoud: book review

TowergoudTowergoud by Elizabeth Vermeulen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a rather surprising book, and I came to read it in an unusual way.

My wife mentioned to a colleague at work that she had enjoyed a book that she had read at school, Reënboog in die skemering by Elizabeth Vermeulen, but had never seen a copy since she had left school, as it was apparently out of print. The book was a kind of family saga, and she had found it much more interesting than the “Trompie” books that were the other Afrikaans books that they had had to read at school. Trompie was a mischievous schoolboy, a bit like the “William” books of Richmal Crompton, but definitely intended for a younger readership than my wife was when they had to read them.

Great was her surprise when her colleague presented her with not one, but three books by Elizabeth Vermeulen. She had found second-hand copies somewhere. It turns out that the family saga was in three volumes, of which Towergoud (enchanted gold) is the first.

I began reading it, not quite sure what to expect. The title suggested that it might be a fantasy novel or fairy tale of some sort, but it turned out to be a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel on the pattern of David Copperfield or Great expectations.

The story opens in 1864 when Neels and Tys Lindeman are orphaned when their parents are killed in an accident. Their parents had lived on the farm Diepfontein, somewhere in the northern Cape Colony, employed by the farm owner, Org de Wit, who also owns the trading store that is the social centre of the district. Org de Wit takes in the young orphans, and employs them as shepherds, but without pay, and treats them harshly. Neels grows up realising that he will need to care for his retarded younger brother for the rest of his life, and resentful of the rich but miserly Org de Wit.

To say more might give away too much of the plot; even though it seems to be out of print someone else might get hold of a copy and want to read it. I found it a gripping tale, generally well told, though the language at times seemed a little stilted to me, but then Afrikaans is not my first language, and so I’m not the best judge of Afrikaans style. I will say, however, that Afrikaans, as written and spoken by the late dominee Beyers Naudé, is a really beautiful language, thought the years when it was South Africa’s language of bureaucracy tended to make it very ugly.

In this book I also learnt a few words that were new to me — algar where I would have expected almal (everyone, all). Another surprise was a term that was quite quite familiar to me, but which I had never seen written before, was te kere, meaning to do one’s nut, or go ballistic. I had no idea it was from Afrikaans, and pictured it as written tequira, by analogy with tequila, and thought it came from Spanish. One is never too old to learn!

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