“This is the sweet memory of Mme, my dear mother. The first sweet memory . . . Sometimes her laughter bursts into my head or I hear her call me – my name full and round in her mouth. Frustratingly though, as with all the memories I have of Mme, her face always blurs under the pressure of my focus.”
I was born in apartheid South Africa. Fortunately, as I was growing up this oppressive regime was coming to a close, so my memories are mostly good and of the change. I was thirteen in 1994 when I stood with family and friends amongst the excitement in the forever lines down the main street of my Jo’burg suburb, everyone over eighteen eager to cast their vote in the first democratic elections, the elections that saw Nelson Mandela become president.
Shifting Colours, by Fiona Sussman, is set long before this, beginning at the time when racial tensions were rising and Apartheid was about to take hold. Rather than the story of political upheaval, it is the story of a mother and child: of a mother’s love for her child, and the sacrifices she will make for her; of our need to feel for familial connection, and the searching we do until we find it.
Celia Mphephu is one of the lucky ones. She has a good job working as a maid for the Steiners in their leafy suburb in Johannesburg, and her young daughter, Miriam, can happily follow her around as she goes about her work. But when racial tensions begin to hit an all-time high, the Steiners decide to emigrate to England – and offer to adopt Miriam, so that they can save her from the horrors beginning to plague the country. With a heavy heart, and to give her daughter her best chance, Celia agrees.
But, England – and her life with the Steiners – is not what Miriam had expected. She is lonely, and struggles to find her sense of identity. Back in South Africa, Celia must cope with a country torn in two, every day struggling to survive. She has difficulty finding and keeping work, and is barely able to provide for her three other children. All either of them can do is hope that some day they will find what they are waiting for: each other.
This is a beautifully and carefully written book. Set against the backdrop of this particular era in South African history, it would have been easy for this book to become too awful to read. Sussman writes with unwavering honesty, but has expertly crafted Shifting Colours in such a way that the story is emotional, making the readers ache for the characters and their hopeless situations, but not overly so, so you do, in fact, want to – are desperate to – keep on reading. She has managed to find the perfect balance. That said, I do recommend keeping the tissues handy.
What stood out to me most about this novel was how Apartheid remained the backdrop while Celia and Miriam’s story was the focus. Apartheid set-up the scenarios and was responsible for the pains and decisions of the characters, but at all times it was the characters and their personal struggles that were central, enabling the messages and themes of the book to remain universal. Any mother or daughter will be able to relate, to empathise with Sussman’s powerful story.
Shifting Colours is a heart-felt, moving and thought-provoking book. Sussman’s descriptions and vivid imagery will instantly transport you, and her strong characters will draw you in more and more. Whether you’re a Women’s Fiction or Contemporary fiction fan, this is worth a read.