Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK


Barbara Boswell

Modjaji Books

It is often difficult to escape one’s past, it is said. You will never really know where you are going if you don’t acknowledge where you come from.

In her first work of fiction, gender activist and academic Barbara Boswell shows how, after living a life built on lies and secrets, a woman is faced with tough decisions when a person from her childhood walks back into her life.


We are first introduced to Grace as a young girl trying to make sense of the world. A war is playing out, both inside her home and outside.

In the 1980s, when political tensions in SA are high, Grace, the quiet daughter growing up on the Cape flats, has a life that is unpleasant. Her father, Patrick, is an alcoholic who is often unemployed, leaving the burden of caring for the family to her mother, Mary.

From the outside, the De Leeuw household looks like any other township household, but inside a deep fear rages. Coffee-stained curtains, punched doors and Mary’s bruises concealed by make-up are evidence of the evil that lurks inside the house.

Grace adores her mother, is envious of her beauty, and loathes the fact that she looks like her father. She hates Patrick, and often wishes he would die.

Many years later, after a horrifying incident that sends Grace’s life tumbling into ruins, we are reintroduced to her as a young married woman, who lives a modest suburban life in newly democratic SA.

Grace has found love, but is it the kind of love that she longed for? Her new life seems perfect, but how easily can it be threatened by the reappearance of a long-forgotten past?

Boswell’s novel explores a few themes that are intertwined. One of them is how secrets, lies and unresolved issues can come back to haunt us.

Grace is tormented with the guilt and shame of all that she has kept from her husband.

"Here is the thing about living a secret: you have to have the stomach for it," Boswell writes.

"Some people thrive on the little charge they get from doing something illicit, something not even those closest to them would suspect. When Grace thought about it, she knew that her father must have been such a man.

"Grace, however, was not a woman who could live with secrets. It was one thing to leave the past where it belonged, but when it came back in the form of letters and people? No. Those kinds of secrets were too heavy for her.…"

Another fundamental theme is domestic abuse and the physical, emotional and psychological scars it leaves in its victims. Boswell describes how they start telling themselves lies to justify their abusers’ behaviour: "It must be something in you; something innately unlovable or despicable about you to turn a man into that. And so you wear your shame, get comfortable in it, make indignity your home."

But this beautifully written novel with its attention to detail is not all gloom and doom, it is about love, happiness, starting from scratch and creating your own universe out of nothing.

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