Child of the River by Irma Joubert
Reviewed by: Faye Oygard
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: October 18, 2016
Persomi is a poor bywoner’s daughter in South Africa in the 1940’s. When her older brother, Gerbrand, leaves home to find work in the city, and her troubled family is torn apart by her step-father’s drunkeness and abuse, her whole life changes. Persomi earns a scholarship to continue her education, and a whole new world opens up to her, giving her hope beyond her humble upbringing.
Persomi excels at her studies, but her visits home remind her of the broken home she left behind. She treasures the letters from her brother who has joined the military to support his family. She is able to continue her education with the help of a mysterious sponsor, as the political climate becomes more and more tense with the stories that come from the north.
This is a story about a strong, resilient young woman, who rises above the circumstances of her birth and status, to fight for equality in South Africa, and find a home for her heart.
Originally a best-seller in the Netherlands and South Africa where it was titled simply Persomi, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was intrigued by the South African setting. I was not at all prepared to go through the emotional roller coaster that this book took me on. I instantly liked Persomi. She is clever and dreams of the world that her brother walks in, wanting to see the world as more than a bywoner’s daughter, but wonders what it is to be a “real person.” Persomi adores her older brother Gerbrand, who takes her under his wing, and introduces her to his friends.
It was hard at first to keep all the characters straight, because of how they respectfully call older friends Aunt, Oom, Ouma, and Oupa, so at first I had some trouble figuring out who belonged to what family, but I caught on the more I read. There are so many characters, and as the years go by their lives intermingle and entwine, through children, marriage, and love.
Persomi shows strength and determination throughout this book, as it follows decades of her life, as she goes from a girl who runs from trouble to a woman who stands up for others in the face of adversity. She sees unspeakable things and injustices that shape her life, making lifelong friends along the way like Reinier, Christine, Yusuf, De Wet, and Boelie.
Reinier is her faithful friend and companion, smitten with Irene Fourie, but ever Persomi’s true friend. Boelie is passionate about farming, and has a love for the land that his grandfather sees in him, Persomi talks to him in Gerbrand’s absence and finds within him a kindred spirit of sorts despite the fact that they agree to disagree about politics. Yusuf is a young man with a dream, and is full of hope and grit to make it happen. He, in his own journey, reminded me a lot of Persomi. I think two of the most underrated friends that Persomi has are Christine and De Wet, De Wet loves Christine fiercely, and he has a good heart. He is a stable and steady friend to depend upon.
This book covers so much and is like s slideshow of the pivotal moments in Persomi’s life, as it travels through the decades, experiences, friendships, and heartbreaks. At times it was hard to read, because it just seemed like the bad things that happened to Persomi and her family would never end, though it realistically showed the uphill battle she was fighting. I admired her pluck and determination. I was spellbound by Ms. Joubert’s storytelling, fascinated by how much I was learning about a place I had never thought much about during that particular time period, I didn’t want to put this book down, there were moments when I was sure that it had my heart in a vice grip! It is a masterful story of hard times, heartache, triumph, defeat, and hope. I would highly recommend this riveting novel. It exceeded my humble expectations, and completely blew me away! It is a book I will remember for a long time.
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Rated PG-13: Though not explicit, very disturbing things happen, like the rape of Persomi’s step-sister by her own biological father. Romantic affairs end in illegitimate children. There are also thematic events related to war and politics.
Reviewer’s copy was provided by the Publisher. Thank you!