/ 25 August 2006

Quilt of Dreams

Quilt of Dreams

by Patricia Schonstein

(Bantam Press)

In the sleeve information to Patricia Schonstein’s A Quilt of Dreams the book announces itself as a “bittersweet story of two people whose lives intertwine without them even knowing each other — one a heavy drinking white man and the other the young daughter of a black activist”. Though to take this as an absolute is slightly misleading.

The story belongs mainly to the heavy drinker, Reuben Cohen van Tonder, and his angst-filled exploration of self. Schonstein has done well in her description of how this comical, unresolved man begins to come to terms with his broken past. His story encapsulates the humour, warmth and tragedy of an unexamined life, and the agony of realisation when previously held truths reveal themselves as falsehoods. His grandparents are also rendered with empathy and the vignettes that accompany their lives are written with a care that makes them the real gems in this novel.

In comparison the “activist’s daughter”, the young Vita Mbuli, and her family feel like cardboard cut-outs and the backdrop of apartheid a convenient prop that allows Schonstein to weave in a narrative about the Xhosa leader, Maqoma, and ultimately pull the strings that draw the novel together into a sweet, neat ending. There is nothing wrong with any of this in itself and the inclusion of snippets from apartheid history probably add a dimension for overseas readers, but for local readers who already know the history, these episodes are dealt with the thinness of reportage that makes them somewhat redundant.

By the end of the novel I had real feeling for Cohen van Tonder and his family, but Mbuli and her kin were still strangers. It was a bit like enjoying a rich, well-prepared meal and ending it off with instant pudding.