Is it true and how did they get that way?

I realised Edyth Bulbring is a person to be reckoned with when she used an innocent interview question about her favourite reader to launch into a Farmer’s Weekly Hitching Post ad for a mate for her mamma — but her novel, though entertaining in places, is not nearly as much fun.

In fact it is not fun at all. Though set in a highly physi­cally recognisable (to ex and current pupils and parents) Johannesburg school, it cannot actually be any particular school as the goings-on described might result in serious legal action being taken.

The protagonist, Mammuso, is in Grade 11 and has a younger brother whom she adores and protects when she can. But she has been pretty traumatised by the sudden death of her mother and is an alienated but wealthy teenager living in an upmarket suburb with her grandfather and (mostly absent) father.

The school is run by a gang of truly scary kids who sell drugs, do blackmail and extortion, and corrupt everything from cricket matches to matric exam papers. Mammuso is one of them. They are clever, full of bad attitude and care only for power, being cool and, especially, money.

Most of the adults who deal with these kids are out of their depth, their values centred on religious precepts, academic and sporting excellence. A new teacher arrives who offers considerably more suss and grit. Bulbring’s portraits of teachers and parents are amusingly apt, sometimes deliciously tart. She describes one old boy parent’s Mercedes as “old and battered and stinking of people who whine about the demise of the dessert trolley at the Rand Club”.

The level of sexual candour evinced by the pupils is probably spot on, and the language foul enough to curdle the little darlings from within, but it is the ruthless bullying that is really shocking. They seem to cultivate an indifference to the suffering of others, which makes them seem like androids.

This depressing but salutory wake-up call to teachers and parents and the whole community is kept afloat by the character of Jacob, the 12-year-old brother. Irrepressible, clever, full of mad ideas and games, it’s easy to understand why Mammuso loves him so much. But he is the most vulnerable person in the book.

This is an absorbing read and hugely challenging. It’s not the kids that are most shocking, but the question one is forced to ask: how did they get that way? And most readers will also ask, could it possibly be true?

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder hurts oppressed people

The journalist is among more than 50 reporters who have died at the hands of the Israeli regime and is remembered for bravely giving a voice to Palestinians

Corporal punishment in rural schools is ‘big challenge’ for South...

The council received 169 corporal punishment complaints in 2020-21

Eskom ramps up load-shedding to stage 4

Unit at Kusile power station trips, taking 720 megawatts of generating capacity with it.

Zimbabweans stuck in limbo in South Africa

The legal challenge to Zimbabwean Exemption Permit deadline in December is being led by the controversial Simba Chitando, who is the head of Zanu-PF’s Sandton branch and whose uncle is Zimbabwe’s mining minister

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…