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Carving beauty in adversity and betrayal: Hamilton Wende reviews Simon Bruinders’s A Handful of Earth

Published in the Sunday Times

A Handful of EarthA Handful of Earth
Simon Bruinders (Penguin Random House)

October 1939. The world is at war but Abraham de Bruyn is picking tea high in the Outeniqua mountains. Originally published as Die Sideboard, A Handful of Earth tells the story of Abraham and his wife Stella and their struggle to raise a family during these turbulent years. Abraham is an illiterate carpenter who lives on a rented piece of land near George. He loves the soil and the fruit and vegetables he produces on it. “The soil is like us humans,” he tells Stella when he is still courting her. “Everything begins there and everything ends there.”

This sets the tone for Simon Bruinders’s book. Its central theme is hope and the yearning that Abraham and those around him have for a good life. He longs for nothing more but to live on his own plot of land with Stella, grow his own produce and give his children a better life. The forces of white supremacy, though, callously betray him time and again.

The first betrayal is when he and his family, along with their neighbours, are forced to leave the plots they have been renting for generations and move to a new place called The Island. Abraham cannot believe that it is happening and he lashes out in a fit of violent anger at the men who bring the magistrate’s order to their home.

He is powerless to prevent it happening, and Bruinders’s simple, clear prose hauntingly draws the contrast between Abraham’s naivety and the rage he finds within himself. He never gives up his belief that someone can have his own piece of land, and he volunteers to fight against Germany because the army recruiters tell him that coloured soldiers will be given plots as a reward for serving their country.

When he is fighting the Italians in Abyssinia he sees a beautiful sideboard that becomes a symbol of the beauty and love that he feels for Stella, and for the life he wants them to build together. He is wounded at El Alamein and returns to South Africa to find that there is no land for coloured soldiers after all.

He is betrayed by white cruelty yet again. He refuses to give up, though, and he carves a sideboard himself that echoes the one he saw during the war.

He and Stella and their family live in the new home they have created with the stately sideboard taking pride of place as the children grow up and begin studying, something Abraham never had the chance to do. But then the National Party takes power and the full malice of apartheid descends. The family are moved yet again, their church is destroyed and the new house they are forced to live in is too small for the sideboard.

At times, perhaps, the narrative skips the years a little too swiftly, but the historical research adds a deeper dimension to this tale of suffering leavened by courage, compassion and beauty. Bruinders tells of Abraham’s pain in language that simmers with rage but never descends into bitterness, and never loses hope.

Follow Hamilton Wende @HamiltonWende

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