This Book Betrays My Brother

| November 15, 2012 | 0 Comments

Author: Kagiso Lesego Molope
Published by: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 987-0-19-905922-5
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

“You live in cars. You go from your parents’ car to your parents’ house with its high walls and security gates. You don’t know anything,” says Ole to Naledi, the central character in Kagiso Lesego Molope’s latest novel for young people, This Book Betrays My Brother, published by Oxford University Press.

Ole’s observation provides English teachers with a valuable starting point for discussing this fascinating work of fiction set in the mid-1990s in a township called Maropong – “the place of the bones”. Exactly what Naledi knows and when she discovers it form the crux of this story and through tracing plot and character development, students will gain a richer understanding of these techniques used by Molope to reveal a disturbing secret.

Who knows what about whom?

Were I to use this text in the classroom, I would ask students the following questions: Why is it that Molope has Naledi recall the events leading to a significant incident that occurred when she was just 13, from the safe vantage point of adulthood? And what sort of 13 year-old does Molope present? What does she ‘know’ about her community, her family, her school friends and herself? What assumptions does she draw about life and people, using what clues? (At this juncture, it would be worth asking students whether they see anything of themselves in Naledi, a naturally precocious, curious and vulnerable teen who likes boys, gossiping, long baths and primping.)

Teachers could then guide the discussion to Naledi’s relationship with Ole. How are they different? What secret is Ole keeping from her best friend, and what details does Molope provide the reader as to the nature of this secret?

Vivid pictures

Students who have engaged fully with this tale may very well then be able to identify one of Molope’s obvious authorial strengths: her ability to paint vivid pictures. In Maropong, taxis come to “an abrupt stop”, “veering off the road in front of you, dust rising, people scattering”. The township itself is nicknamed Silver City, for “the sun, at its fiercest hour, beats off the iron roofs, creating a glittering sea of silver”. Naledi’s mother – another character that Molope weaves deftly into the web of conspiratorial silence – wishes her children would not play with the township kids. ““They’re not classy,” she would say, frowning at my brother, pursing her lips and angrily waving her arm in the air, her gold bangles like wind chimes in a storm.” In sharp contrast, the domestic worker, Aus’ Tselane, has “safety pins under her armpits neatly holding her dress together”.

But it’s perhaps to the descriptions of Basimane, the brother, that teachers and students should pay the most attention. “He moves through the world calmly and smoothly, making it all look so easy and fun,” observes Molope through Naledi. “He’s such a gentleman”, gush some school girls significantly, and when he considers himself in the mirror, “his eyebrows would rise in a flash of surprise, as if he couldn’t quite believe the perfection…”

Descriptions such as these should lead to a closer consideration of the pivotal relationship between Naledi and her older brother. Why is it important that Naledi feels inferior to Basimane? What else does she initially feel about him? How does this relationship change after Naledi’s shocking discovery? Why does Molope only reveal this dark occurrence in chapter 17, and how does she maintain the reader’s interest until then?

Many angles to investigate

Keeping the reader captive, as it were, until the very end, is simultaneously the goal of any author and in many cases the most difficult thing to achieve. I would want to know from my students whether the build-up to the shocking climax of this novel is matched by its resolution. Is there in fact a resolution, or simply a disappointing fizzle? Could Molope have been more daring by applying, for example, an attempt at atonement? If so, who would have atoned and how? Is Naledi’s confession to Ole really a betrayal? Who learns the most from the incident: Naledi, Basimane, Ole or the luckless, beautiful Moipone? Why does the book bear its particular title, and would else could it have been called?

Molope has provided many angles for teachers and students to investigate, and a worthy conclusion to the study of This Book Betrays My Brother could very well be a discussion of her skilful portrayal of an intricate web of cultural traditions and taboos. Such a discussion could be perhaps headlined by the marvellous Toni Morrison quote Molope provides at the start: “A man ain’t nothing but a man. But a son? Well now, that’s somebody.”

Category: Summer 2012

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