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Behind the Book: Autobiography and Philida
What makes Philida by André Brink such an engrossing read? Lexy Bloom tells us how Philida’s first-person, confessional narrative allows us to make a personal connection with an unforgettable character.
Dorothy Allison’s Bone (from Bastard out of Carolina). André Brink’s Philida (from Philida). Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao (from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). Roddy Doyle’s Henry Smart (from A Star Called Henry). Alice Walker’s Celie (from The Color Purple). What do the five narrators of these acclaimed novels have in common? Well, not a whole lot, really—at least on the surface. Their stories span the globe, from the United State to Ireland to South Africa—and more than 150 years. They are men and women, with tales that are personal and political.
But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that all five novels open with their narrators confessing, in the first person, something very personal. Each character also tells his or her story in a voice thick with dialect. As a reader maybe you have to work just a little bit harder for the first ten pages to get used to it—but once you’re in it, you are completely transported by the remarkable skill of all of these writers, and by the stunningly unique characters each writer has created. You are the recipient of this confessional, once you’re along for the ride.
In the case of André Brink’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, which Vintage is so pleased to be publishing, Philida impressed all of us here as one of the most memorable characters we’d come across in a long time. She’s a black female slave in South Africa in 1832, one year before slavery is emancipated. She has borne four children to her master but she is not allowed to consider them hers. She has nothing to her name but her cat—not even a pair of shoes. But she will not be beaten down. She refuses, even given the most extraordinary of circumstances, to concede defeat—against all odds, she will find freedom and solace. This incredible novel tells the story of Philida’s great journey. And as readers, we’re lucky to travel with her.