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BOOK REVIEW

'The Children's Day' by Michiel Heyns

The debut novel set in South Africa during apartheid has well-written characters and humor, but is sometimes difficult to follow as it flits about adulthood, teen years and childhood.

August 28, 2009|Amy Wallen

Sex and politics on the playground. Yes, another coming-of-age story.

Two potential drawbacks of such stories are the episodic nature of the telling, and the child's point of view: Episodic narrative fails when it is too disjointed. And a child's point of view -- though often cute -- can be shallow and uncompelling. South African author Michiel Heyns, in his first novel "The Children's Day," does deliver on both elements, one less successfully than the other. But with rich language and characters, as well as titillating humor, the imperfections are forgivable.

Simon, a precocious boy, is naive in the ways of love. It's 1960s apartheid South Africa, and Simon is a white child living in the small town of Verkeerdespruit. His naivete leads to many puzzling situations: Why do the village mothers run out of town the slick motorcyclist whom all the village boys love and admire just because he takes them skinny-dipping? And what is the deal with the man Simon calls "my stranger" (as in don't-talk-to-strangers stranger), who offers to teach him how to masturbate?

We are first introduced to teenage Simon at Wesley College, his boarding school. The tennis coach informs the team that they will be playing a special tournament with the Clutch Plates -- the team from a technical school: "As children of privilege and culture, it was our duty to share our amenities with the less privileged . . . and we resigned ourselves to our putative high-mindedness." When the Clutch Plates arrive, he is surprised to see his old chum Fanie van den Bergh step off the bus. Then Simon takes the reader back through his years as a primary school student when he had been a classmate of Fanie's and instead of plot we travel along these recollections through which Simon reflects on the intersection of sex, power and the world at large.

In one of these episodes, Simon recalls a Ladies Home Journal cartoon with "S-E-X" in the caption. The dictionary was not much help in solving this mystery, so he "saved up the word and watched for things to fall into place around it."

It is in Simon's analyses where we see the crossover of his child and adult mind filtering and interpreting the secrets he is trying to unravel.

As the answers remain out of reach, he recalls his mother saying, "When you grow up you'll discover that you don't know much more, you just get better at living with your ignorance."

Heyns paints the narrator, the reflecting adult Simon, in such subtle tones as to make him invisible -- more a conscience than overarching presence.

The storytelling falters, however, when Heyns skips back and forth between Simon as child and Simon as teenager. He forces the connections via episodic flashbacks, but what the episodes lack in continuity, they reward with the splendid characters who inhabit them. Heyns creates empathy for the good and the bad in a short amount of space:

Chinless Betty, an adult with whom the child Simon shares cream soda floats at the local cafe, answers some of Simon's recondite questions. Her responses, and his mother's, are heart-stopping and humorous moments.

Betty, the village phone operator, recounts her disagreement with a caller who wants her to speak in Afrikaans first, then English, and she explains to Simon that it's a matter of principle.

"What's a principle?" Simon asks, to which Betty replies: "A principle is something that you're prepared to make yourself unpleasant about."

Simon suffers the trials and tribulations of love, as relationships sour or shift: His primary school crush dumps him for a rugby player.

He observes aggressors and victims in relationships, tries to differentiate love from sex and power, distinguish human frailty from backbone.

Simon also observes unconventional love struggling against society's prejudices: Klasie the postmaster who lives with his devoutly Catholic mother falls in love with Trevor the pink-shirted hitchhiker. Gradually, love begins to get crowded out for Simon and he begins to understand how people can abuse power in its guise.

In one scene he discusses "Great Expectations" with "my stranger" and we see his conflict. "Miss Havisham did wrong . . . because she taught Estella never to love anybody, but I don't know . . . I can sort of see her point . . . the one who loves is weak and the one who doesn't love is strong."

When his observations become more and more tainted, he is called a cynic.

"What's cynical?" he asks.

His mother replies: "[P]eople who don't believe in life anymore."

Heyns' story goes beyond Simon's coming-of-age and broaches something much bigger: society's own struggles with coming-of-age.

--

Wallen is a book reviewer, novelist and the "Unconventional Relationships" columnist for the Faster Times.

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