Reading this book is a spiritual experience, but not necessarily in a religious way. It's a reflection on a complicated and difficult life told from the point of view and memory of Milla who is experiencing slow death from a creeping paralysis (it's probably ALS).
With frequent use of stream of consciousness ramblings, short sentences, detailed lists and excruciatingly detailed descriptions of medical, farming and family activities, the reader is bombarded with a feeling of transcendence akin to that which comes from reading poetry. I read the English translation of the book which was originally written in Afrikaans. If the sum total of the words can affect me this way in a translated language, I wonder what the effect is in its native language.
Through flashbacks we learn of Milla's life story and her relationships with her husband (a "self aware wife beater"), her son (who becomes alienated from his parents), and Agaat (a house servant who was a castoff neglected child that was saved and taught by Milla). All these relationships have their tensions and problems, but the relationship with Agaat is explored with special thoroughness. To son Jakkie, Agaat is second mother, confidante and almost-sister. To Milla, she is house servant, livestock expert, begrudged supporter, and an almost-daughter in tidy apron and serving cap. But Agaat is black, and in the age of apartheid she has her place, and that place is not equal.
When Agaat was a child Milla had to hand feed her; now the roles are reversed and Agaat needs to hand feed Milla. In the midst of saving (taming) the neglected child that became Agaat, Milla asks herself a question that summarizes her life:
"Why do I always give myself the most difficult missions? The most difficult farm, the most difficult husband, and now this damaged child without a name?"
Milla in her paralyzed state has been communicating one letter at a time by using her eyes. As her paralysis spreads her remaining means to communicate begins to fail. One eye can no longer open and she's down to one eye. She knows the end is near. In desperation she identifies with the wilted flowers and gets four letters out (and thinks the rest):
"P.R.A.Y, I asked. It's the only opening I can devise to initiate what I want to plead for. Don't throw them out. Our blue-purple hydrangeas. Don't throw yourself out, and me neither. Hold us for a while yet. There is beauty also in flowers that fade. Their last hour provides stuff for contemplation. Contemplate it for me. For whom do you in any case want to refresh the vase? It's our last flower arrangement with a history in this room. Remember, you salvaged the vase. And stuck it together. And it never leaked."
Her son is not there, and she's not been told of his plans. So she gets this message out:
"M.Y. O.N.L.Y C.H.I.L.D, exclamation D.O.E.S H.E. K.N.O.W I A.M D.Y.I.N.G H.E.R.E, question mark."
This book can be read as an allegory of the demise of apartheid. In many ways Agaat and Milla embody apartheid, two women, black and white, ink and paper, who together, over 50 years, inscribed upon each other a scroll of wrongs, betrayals and sacrifices that cannot be redressed, only reread.
But there are traces of mutual tenderness and love, often unexpressed. The irony in this story is that in the end Milla is totally incapable of expressing her feelings in any way and can only think them:
"Why only now love you with this inexpressible regret? . . . Am I vain in thinking you will miss me?"
How should a person feel about experiencing slow death? Is the coming death an escape from a difficult life? Or is it a time of regret about how things could have been different? Or perhaps it is time to feel satisfied about a battle well fought.
I can't remember being so emotionally moved by a book before, and I'm not sure why. Having to endure the many pages of multitudinous words may have had something to do with it. I was so exhausted by the end of the book I was vulnerable to having my soul pierced. This book deserves to be classed as profound and well written literature. But it's not a book for everybody. It requires a seasoned and patient reader who is willing to become immersed in all the words and still reach the end.