South Africans, Paul and Andrea, are lovers living in France. Paul is fiftyish and white; Andrea is thirty and “coloured.” He has just asked her to marry him. She travels to Provence ostensibly to research sites for a film to be based on Paul’s endlessly forthcoming novel about fourteenth-century plague. But the real reason for the journey is to test her feelings about his proposal—she is leaning to ‘yes.’

As five days roll by, she relives the trajectory of her life: her impoverished parents, her thwarted education, her angry, imprisoned brother, and the previous affair with Brian, a British historian with whom she was captured ‘in flagrante,’ sent to trial, found guilty, and offered prison or voluntary exile. Brian and Andrea left South Africa together, but their relationship eventually crumbled. She had trouble understanding his passion for the past and his love of detail.

In Provence, Andrea avoids places that Paul had wanted her to go, finding strength in solitude and independence. But that feeling is shattered when he asks her to rescue their penniless, black friend, Mandla, an anti-apartheid activist who has been betrayed by a comrade who turned out to be a spy.

Andrea doesn’t like Mandla, his sanctimonious accusations, arrogance, and probing. He is a racist and a male chauvinist, given to violence. But his constant questioning finally unleashes deeper memories of the shocking abuses of her life in apartheid South Africa—memories she has suppressed or attempted to blame on class struggle rather than racial intolerance. She tries to provoke his empathy with the terrible tragedy of the long ago plague. He resists, being concerned far more with the present, but he relents a little and begins to see racism as a plague and walls as feeble, futile attempts to exclude others.

Andrea falls for Mandla, makes love with him near the plague wall, and decides to refuse Paul and return to South Africa. But Mandla rejects a future with her because he wants no vulnerability in his struggle. He is killed in the night by a car. Was the death deliberate? accidental? suicide? Andrea leaves anyway.

In a short second part, Paul writes to Andrea of his own growing doubts about their future together despite his love.


A languid, complex novel by one of South Africa’s most distinguished anti-apartheid writers, set a decade before the release of Nelson Mandela and the ensuing collapse of apartheid. Brink wrote in English when his work in Afrikaans began to be censored. The tales of horrific abuse, murder and rape are revealed slowly well into the novel to stand as shocking reminders of the criminal regime.

Many aspects seem autobiographical. Brink is a writer, who, just like Paul, studied in France and found early success when a novel was made into a feature film. This book about plague may therefore be the very one Paul was writing, and it is dedicated to “Nanna,” who shares Andrea’s nickname.  

Recollections are narrated in third person, but Andrea’s present is narrated in first person—a task that Paul (Brink?) admits he assigned himself to understand her better. He created an implausible though not uninteresting woman, whose beauty, singular intelligence, striving for independence, and sexual hunger feel like the products of male fantasy. She seems incapable of relating to any other women. At one point, Mandla strikes her hard enough to draw blood, and she loves him more--a response difficult to reconcile with her other traits. It would be fascinating to know the real Andrea’s opinion of these characters. Was it Brink’s way of rationalizing his loss?

Vignettes of various plagues in Provence are the topic of Paul’s would-be novel, and historical factoids and lengthy citations from well known authorities are interspersed as fact checking for Paul’s film, but they also serve to emphasize the metaphors.

Andrea’s excursions in Provence, the Luberon and Vaucluse, are described in obsessive detail—especially enjoyable for those who know the region. The two-meter high, dry stone wall, built in 1721 over 26-kilometers of savage terrain was intended to block northbound travellers during the dreadful plague that had begun in Marseille. By the time the wall was complete, plague had already appeared in places beyond.
This metaphor of ineffective walls against plague is used throughout.

The disease of racism, with its wall of apartheid, is the greatest plague of all. Its draconian wages include exquisite pain, death, and the impossibility of relationships even among people who love each other.  Other walls are constructed around individuals who strive to preserve their autonomy and identity. But walls inevitably fail, and people can never be certain on which side they stand.


Faber & Faber

Place Published

London & Boston



Page Count