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Killers and Victims

By Heather Hewett

Sunday, February 6, 2000; Page X07


By Sindiwe Magona

Beacon. 210 pp. $20

Reviewed by Heather Hewett

"My son killed your daughter." With these words, South African writer Sindiwe Magona begins Mother to Mother, a novel that tries to understand why some children grow up to be killers. A blend of fiction and history, Mother to Mother is based on the August 1993 murder of Fulbright scholar Amy Elizabeth Biehl in the black township of Guguletu, South Africa.

Magona's novel imagines how this story would be told by the killer's mother. Its ambition signals a departure from the smaller and more private scope of her previous books, two short-story collections and a two-part autobiography, which explore how black women struggled daily to survive in a system that denied them citizenship and basic human rights. In Mother to Mother, Magona examines the broader panorama of history through the experience of one woman.

The novel's narrator, Mandisa, tells the story of two victims: one, her son, denied an education and opportunity by the government, and the other an idealistic young American, visiting South Africa to help the nation work toward all-race elections. Mandisa alternates between recounting the events on the day of the crime and remembering the past in a series of extended flashbacks.

One day she returns home to find her neighborhood torn apart by police raids and student riots. Unable to locate her son, Mxolisi, Mandisa tries to piece together what has just taken place. Bewildered and uneasy, she searches the past for clues. Her remembrances build to create a larger picture within which the murder can be viewed at the end.

Mandisa's angry, anguished voice is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Torn by sorrow, anger and grief, she speaks directly to the mother of the murdered American girl (never named in the novel and referred to only as "your daughter") as she stumbles for explanations: "God, you know my heart. I am not saying my child shouldn't be punished for his sin. But I am a mother, with a mother's heart. The cup You have given me is too bitter to swallow. The shame. The hurt of the other mother. The young woman whose tender life was cut so cruelly short." Her direct, clipped style builds momentum as the events of history lead up to the murder.

If Mandisa's voice powers the novel forward, the absence of Mxolisi's voice limits our ability to witness fully the bond that connects mother to son. Mandisa's perspective allows us very little sense of her son's identity. Silenced as a young boy because of police violence, he becomes involved in the student political groups that played an important role in the struggle for freedom. We observe him most closely at the end, when Mandisa finally finds him. In a somewhat overdramatized scene, his mother asks him whether he murdered the girl, again and again, until he finally answers her.

Magona has a surer touch when narrating the sweep of history that builds up to create inevitable, if horrible, results. By the end of the novel, Mandisa is finally able to reconstruct the actual killing. All the more gripping because of its delayed telling, the murder is recounted with a tragic sense of history.

Magona's exploration of violence exposes the complicity of all South Africa, black and white, in this murder, as the novel becomes a searing criticism of race hatred in South Africa.

Mother to Mother travels the boundary between responsibility and judgment, finding accountability in Mxolisi, his community and his country. Its exploration of South Africa's deep-rooted racial and economic problems provides a compelling literary counterpart to the actual murder case, in which the four boys convicted of Amy Biehl's murder were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission just last year. Magona's reexamination of what was a highly publicized, contentious political event leaves no easy answers. In Mandisa's reaching out to a fellow "Sister-Mother," the novel points to a redemptive hope for those who can come together for healing, even when they have been bound together by sorrow. The writer's own courage in writing this novel is evidence of an increasingly powerful literary voice for a nation that continues to struggle with issues of truth and reconciliation.

Heather Hewett, a freelance writer in New York, is working on a doctoral dissertation about women writers of the African diaspora.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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