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Home Affairs by Bree O’Mara PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 28 March 2008 03:33

Home Affairs I judge books by their covers. There, I said it. And usually it’s a pretty good judge, I think. If there are swooning women, it’s a romance. If there are bold letters, it’s a drama. If there are quirky pictures, it’s a book I’ll like. But if I had judged Home Affairs by its cover, I wouldn’t have read it. I would have thought it was a somewhat silly book with poorly caricatured characters. And it isn’t! Not at all.

Bree O’Mara won the Citizen’s Book Prize, a competition voted for by South Africa’s public, for Home Affairs, which is saying something, because people who read know what they like to read. And it is an intensely readable book.

In the satirical tradition of Tom Sharpe, Home Affairs introduces us to the small (fictional) Underberg village of Hillman, population 237 (“it would have been 238 except that the mayor, Dewaldt ‘Pompies’ van Niekerk, was not at home at the time of the last census”).  There are a whole host of amusing characters, conveniently divided into thirds – Afrikaans, English and Zulu, to provide a “microcosm” of South Africa. Because of Hillman’s difficult-to-reach location, it has been largely untouched by the changes taking place in South Africa; but the mayor decides that in order to keep his position (which has no salary, but affords him a Title, respect and lots of home-baked goodies from the female residents of Hillman) he needs to do some revamping of the town. In particular, of the town’s name. And so, just as real-life mayor Obed did in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, he suggests a name change.

Little does Pompies, the mayor, realize, this will turn Hillman upside down. 

What follows is a hilarious (if at times over-the-top) farce of a village torn apart by political differences. The English faction, led by Lady Lambert-Lansdowne (who isn’t really a lady) wars with the Zulu faction (led by ‘Oubaas’ Mthethwa and his clan) and the Afrikaans faction, led by sheep farmer ‘Dominee’ van Vouw. And then there’s Pompies, who started it all and doesn’t know what to do.

The writing is sharp, funny and clever. Far from lampooning her characters, O’Mara paints them as real people, and despite myself I ended up caring what happened to the residents of Hillman. It’s a tricky style to master, but this is an undeniably amusing book, and refreshingly South African without being political. That said, there are parts that should be insulting and un-P.C., but it is testament to O’Mara’s skill as a writer that it flirts with these boundaries, and manages to get away with it. The result? A very funny book that might just encourage South Africans to laugh at ourselves.
 
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