Buried child

"It's not a feel-good book. Don't expect a happy ending. This novel is more real than that. It depicts life as it is: an ongoing path that we continue to forge"

15 September 2019 - 00:00
By Jessica Levitt, penguin random house sa AND Penguin Random House SA

Published in the Sunday Times: 15/09/2019

As if Born to You ****
Susan Newham-Blake, Penguin

Psychologist Ana does pro bono work at a girls' high school in Johannesburg. Through this weekly commitment she can console herself with the idea that she's doing some form of social responsibility, ridding her conscience of the fact that she chose the well-paid, safe and comfortable route that her career offered. This safe option has allowed her to live in a well-to-do Jozi suburb, drink herself into oblivion at night and numb her memory.

Enter Zuri, a 13-year-old black girl in the predominantly white school that Ana offers her services to. Zuri cuts herself and nobody knows why. Sure, she was adopted by a white woman and is consumed by the complexities that being adopted presents, but it's more than that. It's more than her mom not understanding how to do her hair or the black girls at school ridiculing her for not knowing an African language.

No matter how much she tries, Ana isn't able to get to the core of what plagues Zuri. Yet, Ana identifies with Zuri in a way that is deeply unsettling. Her own past - riddled by living under apartheid, being raised by her domestic worker, her parents' struggling relationship, the stifled conversations with her mom - emerges.

The ultimate win is the searing depth of emotional turmoil for the characters 

Ana is forced to confront her traumatic past. To solve her own problems, she has to help Zuri. While the school and Zuri's mom don't see how therapy is helping, Ana convinces them to push on, certain that a major revelation is about to emerge.

Zuri runs away and turns to Ana for help. Her confession is so shocking and life-changing that even Ana begins to doubt her own ability to help. Pushing through her own destructive path, Ana has to help herself before she can help the teen who has held tightly onto a mammoth suspicion for so long. In forging a path for both their futures, Ana turns to her childhood domestic worker and her son for closure.

After years of pain, Ana realises that the reckoning is hers and hers alone. It is through this that she finds the power to help Zuri.

Perhaps it is the fact that the setting is so familiar; the busy streets of Joburg, that makes Ana's circumstances relatable, and pulls the reader in. More than that, it's author Susan Newham-Blake's ability to weave in that familiarity with a storyline that South Africans know and are able to identify with.

The ultimate win for this novel is the searing depth of emotional turmoil that is consistent for both characters. It is this turmoil that leaves a sense of varying emotions with the reader and escalates with plot twists until the very last page.

It's not a feel-good book. Don't expect a happy ending. This novel is more real than that. It depicts life as it is: an ongoing path that we continue to forge. It is this truth that makes this book stay with you for weeks, if not months afterwards. @jesslevitt