Review: This Life by Karel Schoeman

I received and advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through NetGalley.  It has been translated from Afrikaans by Elise Silke.

My Review:

This LifeThe narrator of this story is an old woman who is lying on her death bed and trying to remember the story of her life which involves growing up in a remote part of South Africa on a farm.  Her life is sad, lonely and pathetic.  As a child she is neglected and forgotten by just about everyone in her family, including her mother.  She never marries and spends her entire life alone and living with family members who oftentimes forget that she even exists.

The narrative is very slow-moving but descriptive.  This old woman describes her parents, her siblings and the servants who all lived together in a crowded house on their farm.  Her mother had a volatile temper and never showed any true affection towards her.  Her father displayed more love for her but his life on the farm kept him very busy.  Her brothers, Pieter and Jakob, have a sibling rivalry that becomes deadly when they both fall in love with the same woman.

Many of the details in the book are vague because the old woman is trying to piece together her memories as her life is slipping away.  As a marginalized member of the family she is never told even the most basic details of their life so she can only put together bits and pieces of her past.  As further evidence of her isolated existence, the narrator’s name is only said a few times in the book and her name seems more like a nickname and not her given name.  No one takes notice of her, no one addresses her, no one acknowledges her place in the family.

Since she never marries, the narrator is dependent on her family for her entire life, being passed down from one generation to the next like some sort of family relic or heirloom.  When her parents die she lives with her nephew and his wife who seem to barely tolerate her presence in their home.  When she is left at home for long stretches of time she finally feels like she has found some independence and  no longer has to follow everyone else’s commands.  Every other female character in the book, from her mother to her sister-in-law, to her wife’s cousin are dependent on men and cater to the whims of their husbands.  But she is able to avoid marriage and attachment to a man for her entire life.  We are left with a sense of ambiguity as to whether or not her life is any better or worse than the other married women in the novel.

THIS LIFE is a sad tale about a woman who lives in the shadows and never finds her own identity.  One should not expect high drama with this novel; it is a disjointed reflection of a long life with much suffering and little joy.


About The Author:

K SchoemanSchoeman is one of a handful of Afrikaans authors who has achieved real greatness in his own lifetime. His prizes include the Hertzog prize for prose three times (1970, 1986, 1995), the CNA prize (1972), the Helgaard Steyn prize (1988), the W.A. Hofmeyr prize and the Old Mutual prize for literature/fiction (1984, 1991). His work investigates the existence of the Afrikaner in Africa, especially those that came from Europe.

After completing his schooling in Paarl, he went on to study a B.A. at the University of the Free State before going to a Catholic Seminary in Pretoria. In 1961 he joined the Franciscan Order in Ireland as a noviciate for priesthood, but then returned to Bloemfontein to continue studying Librarianship. Before returning to South Africa for good in 1983, he was a librarian in Amsterdam as well as a nurse in Glasgow. Back in South Africa he continued writing and working as a librarian in Cape Town. He currently lives in Trompsburg


Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

4 responses to “Review: This Life by Karel Schoeman

  1. Jonathan

    This does sound good. From your description it makes me think it’s a similar style to Stoner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stoner is one of my all-time favorite books! I think it is similar in that both books do not have a happy ending. But Stoner does manage to get married and even have that passionate affair, while the woman in this book has no relationships whosoever outside of her family.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oof, bleak all around!


  3. It’s an interesting choice for a male author, identifying with a woman who seems to take, however unwillingly, such a passive spectator role. Sad to think some people are sidelined so completely in their lives. It sounds like he tries to give her at least his attention, showing her interior life.

    Liked by 1 person

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