Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Marie C. Reviews MOFFIE by Andre Carl van der Merwe

Moffie, by André Carl van der Merwe. Published 2011 by Europa Editions.

It's been kind of a while since I read a book that blew me away like Moffie did. It's a searing, heartrending story about a young white South African man called up for national service and hiding the fact that he's gay.

The kind of opposition that the main character and narrator, Nicholas, faces, is almost a little difficult to understand in the liberal bubble I live in. His father is a hyper-masculine chauvinist. His mother is more sensitive but cowers behind her husband. His father pressures him relentlessly to be conventional and successful, beats him when he steps out of line, ridicules him endlessly. Being nonathletic or artistic is bad enough; if Nicholas were unsuccessful his father says he would pass him by on the street. But if Nicholas were gay, a "moffie" in South African slang, his father says it would be "the end." Nicholas doesn't even want to know what his father means by that. The army is the solution, according to his father, the thing that will make a man out of his unsatisfactory son.

When Nicholas enters the army he enters an environment even more ruthless and punishing than his home. But it's in the army that Nicholas meets gay friends, falls in love, and comes to believe in himself. He encounters unspeakable brutality, scarring tragedy and horrors beyond his imagination, but he also learns about loyalty, friendship and bonds that will last a lifetime. He also learns how to use his religious faith to get him through the trials of army life and how to move forward with pride and confidence.

Moffie is the kind of book that tears you to shreds only to piece you back together. A longish book that reads like lightning,  it's not perfect; the tone can be a little overwrought at times, and there are a couple of unlikely coincidences that are poetic in their way but maybe unrealistic. That's okay. The narrative alternates between Nicholas' army time and his childhood, showing how he became the man he is, and ends on a dual note of horror and hope. An intense, demanding book, Moffie should be required reading not just for LGBT-interested readers but for anyone. If you're doing an LGBT- or African-literature challenge this year, I urge you to add Moffie to your reading list.  I think it may have replaced Broken Glass Park as my favorite Europa and it will certainly show up in my top reads of 2012. What a book!

It's my first read of 2012 for the Challenge!