Tuesday, May 3, 2011

EMPIRE SETTINGS by David Schmahmann

Five narrators give their spin on Durban, South Africa, during apartheid and after, when they have all gone their separate ways. Three of the narrators are members of the Divin family—mother Helga and her two children, Danny and Bridget. The other two are Baptie, the Divins' servant, and Santi, the daughter of a neighbor's servant. I liked this format and found each new perspective enlightening. Danny has 2 segments, and in the second one, the story lagged a bit as it sank into the cliché of a forbidden love story (with Santi). However, the exuberant finale brought me back to a solid thumbs-up. Another character whose story could/should have been included was that of Tesseba, who meets Danny on a bus after his U.S. visa has expired and volunteers to marry him so that he can avoid deportation. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Divins, particularly Helga, are well-known proponents of social reform. Paradoxically, their servants' quarters are in serious disrepair and among the least inhabitable in the neighborhood, while Silas Divin struggles financially as an exporter during the U.S. embargo. After his death, Helga marries the wealthy, arrogant Arnold, who makes frequent generous offers with no intention of actually making good on them. At least we can rely on him for a little comic relief, until he enlists Danny's help in the dangerous and illegal mission of getting Helga's inheritance out of South Africa.

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