'This is the first memory I have of my mamma, the first sweet memory. Sometimes her laughter bursts into my head and I hear her call me - my name full and round in her mouth. Frustratingly though, as with all the memories I have of her, Mamma's face - always her face - blurs under the pressure of my focus.'
Shifting Colours is a story of secrets, love and loss.
Set against the violent backdrop of apartheid South Africa and then the calm of late twentieth century Britain, the novel traces the lives of Celia and Miriam - a mother and daughter separated by land, sea and heart-rending circumstance.
Shifting Colours by Fiona Sussman is published in the UK by Allison & Busby on 22 May 2014.
Celia Mphephu is black. She works as a maid for Mr & Mrs Steiner. It's the early 1960s in Johannesburg, South Africa. Celia's six-year-old daugher Miriam happily follows her mother around the house as she works, unaware of the differences between them and the Master and Madam.
The young Nelson Mandela burns his passbook and young black men join the anti apartheid protests. The tension between white and black brings more violence and fear and the Steiners decide it is time to leave South Africa and make a life in England. When they approach Celia and offer to adopt young Miriam, take her to England and give her a better life and education than Celia could ever dream of, she knows that as much as she loves her little girl, she really doesn't have a choice. With no job, a husband who has deserted the family and three more children to support, she has to make this heart-breaking sacrifice and let her beloved daughter go.
Miriam is excited by the thought of a 'holiday' to England, with the promise of lots of books, a new school and plenty to eat. She is only six-years-old and doesn't realise that she will probably never see her mamma again. Cold, dark, wet Norfolk is a shock to Miriam. Thousands of miles away from the segregation of apartheid South Africa, she finds that English people can be just as intolerant about colour and race as those in her homeland. Lonely and miserable and pining for her family, she realises that life with the Steiners is not at all what she expected. It is only the love of her friend Zelda Patel, and Zelda's warm and welcoming family that make life in England bearable.
Miriam knows that one day she will return to South Africa, she will find out the truth of why her mamma gave her away.
I haven't read many novels set in South Africa. Of course I know about apartheid, about Nelson Mandela and the ANC. I remember the 'Free Nelson Mandela' campaign, and the day that he walked free from prison. I saw him become South Africa's first black leader. I knew of segregation and of the inequalities and horrific treatment of black people in their own land, but I didn't really understand.
Fiona Sussman is an extraordinarily gifted author. Shifting Colours is a novel that brings South Africa to life. The words are exquisite and beautifully woven and the depiction of a country divided by horror and brutality is masterful.
At its heart, this is the story of Celia and Miriam's relationship and how their love for each other is so strong that even the thousands of miles that separate them cannot alter it. The devastation felt by Celia when Miriam leaves for England is so powerful, and as Celia suffers time and time again it begins to become almost unbearable to read her sorrowful story.
"Parts of me simply fell away - the Celia I'd lived for so long - the maid, the char, the black, all dropping off me like ill-fitting clothes. I hesitated, then stepped into this madam's sweet-smelling house a woman."These are Celia's words as she steps into the home of a white woman who treats her as an equal - for the first time in her life. These words are stunning and are just a tiny taste of the brilliance of the story.
Miriam's experience in quiet, leafy Norfolk is a sad testament to the racial prejudice of England in the 70s. She suffers at the hands of not just the school bullies, but her new mother too.
Shifting Colours is an extraordinary and powerful story of brutality and degradation, yet is it also a story of the pure and beautiful love between mother and daughter.
I was utterly transfixed by this novel, reading it in two sittings during a long train journey. Fiona Sussman is enormously talented. Shifting Colours is compelling and haunting. I can't recommend it highly enough - go read it now!
My thanks to Lesley from the publisher, Allison and Busby for my review copy.
Growing up in a publisher's home in South Africa, Fiona Sussman fell in love with language and the written word at an early age. Her family's house was always filled with manuscripts, books and colourful authors. This was during the apartheid era, and witnessing the brutal regime at work sensitised Fiona to the issues of injustice and racial prejudice. The illness and untimely death of her father led her to persue a career in medicine and work as a GP.
She emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand in 1989 where she still lives with her family, juggling her time between writing and running the charity hospital she and her husband established.
Find out more at www.fionasussman.co.nz and her Facebook Author Page
Publishers Allison and Busby www.allisonandbusby.com Twitter @AllisonandBusby