Islands covers the first half-century or so of Dutch settlement at the Cape, opening with a view from the inside of a Khoi nation, the Goringhaicona, under the leadership of Autshumao, dubbed "chief Harry" by early English visitors. For the indigenous peoples it is the beginning of the end of a way of life in close interaction with the subcontinent, its seasons and rhythms, its harshness and abundance. It was during Autshumao's time that the first key woman of South Africa's post-colonisation story makes her appearance: she is Autshumao's niece, Krotoa, brought into Commander Van Riebeeck's household as Eva, go-between and interpreter between the Europeans and the Khoi. When she is drawn into the first 'mixed' marriage of the new colony, one of her children is Pieternella, who becomes the pivot of all the action in this unforgettable epic. Each of the sections of the novel is focused on a man involved in one way or another with Pieternella. Through the life stories of these key figures - all of them men, but all defined in one way or another by the central female character - the reader is offered an understanding of the vast historical forces at work in the shaping of the world in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Each of these brings a whole new geography, a new dimension of experience, into the novel. Behind these 'little men', who are not allowed any choice by history, loom the ones who apparently take the decisions, the commanders and governors and captains and the still greater, more shadowy, potentates, the Lords Seventeen who are in charge of the Dutch East India Company. For it is the Company that ultimately decides the fate of all the millions ruled by it; it is as inexorable, and as mindlessly cruel, as Nature itself. Islands is too crammed with characters and events, too gripping in its unpredictable turns and contortions, too rich with lived experience, too staggering in the scale of its adventures - from the unimaginably cruel to the profoundly moving to the outrageously burlesque - to let go for a moment.
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Halfway through this provocative "people's history" of the Dutch colonization of South Africa, a lecherous attorney quotes John Donne's assertion that no man is an island to the book's central ... Read full review
I consider Islands to be the War and Peace of South Africa. I have read War and Peace many times, and am now on my third reading of Dan Sleigh's original Afrikaans version of Eilande. I have not read the English translation.
This epic novel is not a light read and I believe that poor reviews here are written by people who dislike real writing. The historical details packed into the book are accessible and well incorporated into the narrative, and as a South African I find them fascinating and very meaningful. When I was at school we were taught a very sanitized version of our history, with anyone who was not white either left out entirely or cast as the Bad Guys.
Islands changes all that.
What I love especially in rare, classic novels like this one, is that they recreate an era when history is made, through story telling. They bring to life lost landscapes, and I loved reading about Cape Town before it was a developed city.
Every character in the story represents multifaceted aspects of South Africa's early colonial past within the greater context of conflict on the European continent. I recommend this book very highly.
Voices from the Sea
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