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Brilliant child voice creates engrossing read

Jane Rosenthal

Tracey Farrenhas a true gift for ­getting into the hearts of very ordinary people.

Snake by Tracey Farren (Modjaji Books)

Tracey Farren has shown in her first novel, Whiplash, about prostitutes and others in Muizenberg, that she has a true gift for ­getting into the hearts of very ordinary people while astutely setting the South African sociopolitical context. In Snake she does it again, even better. This astonishing novel is related by 12-year-old Stella, with some asides and ­comments from her parents and the journalist from Truth, who has pitched up at the farm to get the whole gory story in a pre-trial scoop.

Stella is a willing raconteur, because she knows it depends on her to convince the judge that the story she tells is true—and this account to the journalist is just a rehearsal. Although I am generally quite wary of child narrators, Farren’s Stella won me over completely. Truthful to a fault, exhaustingly so, and with a memory for every last little detail, she is nevertheless haunted by a lie she told as she recounts the arrival in their community and on the farm of Jerry, a white man with a car, blue eyes and great charm, who initially only begs a sleeping place at their outside fire.

Through Stella’s day-by-day account, we piece together an extraordinary story that, it turns out, has its origins decades ago on the same farm. In many ways it is a familiar tale and Jerry reminds one of the iniquitous Bonaparte Blenkins in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.

He is an engaging, manipulative and deadly con man.

The horrendous events that follow his arrival are ameliorated somewhat by Stella’s good-hearted and courageous presence in the novel and lightened by her musicianship, her affinity for the natural world on the farm, including snakes and beloved hens, and her down-to-earth common sense.

She is the towering strength of this novel as well as the farm on which she lives. Although her view is young, she engages clearly with moral issues.
Farren’s creation of Stella’s voice never falters as she examines the evil consequences of old lies and temptations and sets them up in a balance with decency and goodness in this seemingly artless, yet absolutely ­riveting read.

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