Portraits of South Africans

Elleke Boehmer has excellent insight into human behaviour. More than that, she knows exactly how South Africans think and what makes them tick.

Elleke Boehmer has excellent insight into human behaviour. More than that, she knows exactly how South Africans think and what makes them tick.

This becomes crystal clear as one reads each one of her 17 short stories in Sharmilla, And Other Portraits.

The stories are about happiness and heartache, problems and achievements and life in general as South Africans come to terms with themselves, with other South Africans and with a country in transition.

The portraits tackle race, poverty, Aids, emigration, love, domestic workers, mothers, crime, a stadium manager, a female escort, an elderly writer and other people and issues with total honesty.

The Bean-Bag Race is told through the eyes of a young coloured girl whose mother has slogged her entire life because she wants to give her only child everything she never had.

The mother enrolls her at a former whites-only school and takes on three low-paying cleaning jobs to pay the school's expensive fees.

On Open Day the girl's mother shocks her when she enters TheBean-Bag Race. The girl wants the ground to open and swallow her when her mother, who is as big as a truck, joins the other smart, white mothers at the starting line. The story is told beautifully. Prejudice and favouritism are traits that human beings do not shed easily and this too comes across well in the story.

There is no pretence. There is just the innocence and openness of a child. The dialogue is written just the way coloured South Africans speak.

Boehmer, of Dutch descent, was born in Durban and lived there with her parents before she moved to the United Kingdom, where she has lived for 20-something years now. She knows her subject matter well and how South Africans think.

Her brief stories reflect very well what is in the hearts and minds of a people trying to come to grips with the new South Africa.

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