When Marguerite Poland went to the Eastern Cape of her childhood in November to launch her new novel, she attended Sunday services at the Holy Trinity church in Nondyola, outside Fort Beaufort. The little church, “a tumble of earth and stone and thatch” is how Poland describes it in A Sin of Omission, was built in 1865 by her great-great grandfather, when he was a 19-year-old Anglican missionary fresh from Warwickshire. It is now fictionalised as the parish of — and place of reckoning for —  the novel’s tragic hero, who is based on its first black priest, a man called Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama.

Poland was deeply moved by how shipshape the church is nowadays, she told me, given the desolation she imagines for her fictional character Stephen Mzamane. He arrives there on horseback in 1878, “this forlorn unkempt wilderness” rather than “the Native College [in Makhanda] with its high whitewashed walls”, which is where he would have preferred to be sent, as a teacher, after his ret...

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