South Africa in the 1970s is a place of both privilege and poverty. It is a place divided by apartheid. 11-year-old Joshua is living with his mother, Beauty, in Cape Town. Beauty works for the Malherbe family in an affluent white middle-class neighbourhood. However, Joshua and his mother live in a shed at the back of the house and Joshua must not be seen or heard.
Joshua is staying with his mother because he is recovering from TB, but he misses his grandparents, siblings and life in Ciskei. At first, every day follows the same routine, but then one day everything changes. One day, Joshua meets a stranger, and gives him refuge in a shed at the bottom of the Malherbes’ garden. This stranger, Tsumalo, is a freedom fighter. He introduces Joshua to new ideas, and the possibility of a different future for him and his family.
Then tragedy strikes. This sets Joshua on a path where he has to make some very difficult choices. As a freedom fighter he does not want to use the same brutality that has been used against his people, but how can he help his people gain freedom without fighting? Eventually, Joshua remembers Tsumalo’s words about liberation starting with education, and heads for Ciskei to find his family.
This is a powerful and beautifully descriptive novel that brilliantly portrays apartheid in 1970s South Africa. Its historical authenticity is reinforced by the fact that this is the time and place where the author herself grew up. Emotion is an important part of the narrative, and it is conveyed with a light hand which gives it greater strength. This clever and insightful novel is an incredibly potent retelling, through the eyes of a child, of a period of oppression in South Africa’s history.