All That We Have Left Unsaid

Women’s Day is commemorated as a public holiday, one of many, in South Africa. It is in recognition of brave mothers and daughters who made painful sacrifices towards attaining the freedom of their children in the struggle against apartheid which ended officially with the country’s first democratic election in 1994.

It will be celebrated this Friday, 9 August, 2013.

It is appropriate that I dedicate my review of Maxine Case’s ALL THAT WE HAVE LEFT UNSAID to those mothers and daughters, including my own mother and her daughters.

all we have left unsaid

ALL THAT WE HAVE LEFT UNSAID is a refreshing, but touching account of one Cape Town woman’s relationship with her mother. It is a universal story of loss and regret to which most readers and writers can relate.

The opening pages of this novel, published by Kwela Books, an imprint of NB Publishers, are indeed spirited as we engage emphathetically with the story’s protagonist, Danika, both as adult and child,  in her relationship with her mother who is not unlike our own (Coloured) mothers on the Cape Flats.

Danika’s father, stereotypically characterised as a hard drinker of whisky, acts out antagonistically against her mother, her older sister, Lili, and indeed herself, disagreeing with everything in their household that suggests sensibility and rational behaviour during the troubling nineteen-eighties of apartheid South Africa in the throes of a severe restrictions and an imminent State of Emergency against the eacalating and justified civil unrest, predominantly amongst black youths and union-affiliated workers.

Danika’s heroic and brave mother takes the side of the disenfranchised and oppressed, while her father, frustrated by deteriorating working conditions in the Eastern Cape motor car factory where he works, disapproves of the civil unrest which is universally intended to bring about democracy, freedom and basic human rights to all South Africans, particularly black South Africans.

Significantly, the angry father echo’s the increasing marginalisation of the Cape Coloured communities who are gradually being excluded from the bargaining tables for freedom and human rights, or at least are placed in the middle, as privileged citizens, between the white oppressors and the black oppressed.

The characterisation of Danika’s father is masterful and it is left up to the reader to decide whether to sympathise with or reject the abusive man against the focalisation of the relationship between mother and daughter.

The story is refreshing mainly because it shows familiarities with our own innocence as children within our families.

The story takes a grim turn after it is revealed that Danika’s mother is dying of cancer, and is a stark  reminder  that childhood is not always blissful.

In this narrative the child focaliser learns of family divisions, but is unable to understand why they exist.

Irony is deployed thoughout the narrative as the adult protagonist, remains distanced from her professionally successful sister (although she too, is successful in her own right as a woman in a patriarchal environment).

As her mother slips into a coma, she leaves clues with her younger daughter as to why these divisions in their family have occurred. Indeed, with politics and unrest in the background, it is a grave tragedy that engulfs this middle class Cape Coloured family. But it is the physical and emotional distance between mother and father that appears to be the root of this family’s tragic failure to connect and communicate effectively and passionately.

The narrative voice is layered, switching at regular intervals from the adult observing her mother’s decay to that of the child observing her mother in the family kitchen and her mother’s reactions to her husband and their divided family.

The mother’s emotional and physical disintegration occurs during the narrator’s childhood. Through the adult narrator’s focalisation of her ailing mother we are also drawn into a material world and its division between have’s and have not’s. In her mother’s case, it is a question of choosing between private or public medical care. The mother stubbornly declines her daughter’s suggestion of benefiting from private medical care. It is as if she wishes to express her own personal solidarity with those that suffer because they are poor, or less privileged.

Neither Danika, nor her sister, and indeed their father, are able to understand May’s behaviour. The mother’s name is symbolic, mirroring the socialist May Day occasion and the history behind its existence.

Through subtle textual nuances and observances of  Cape Coloured culture, the familiar reader recognises this landscape instantaneously.

With reference to the binary oppositions mentioned above, the story is balanced tenuously between the focaliser’s adult urban world of progress and female independence and the earlier years of a sheltered childhood which ironically emphasises the perceived privilege a Coloured suburb over African townships, but less affluent than white suburbia, mainly due to the prejudice of the country’s rulers and the institution of the Group Areas Act, a trademark (or should that be read as landmark?) of the then government’s apartheid legacy.

maxine case

The novel’s author, Maxine Case, was hailed as a bright new South African literary voice. ALL WE HAVE LEFT UNSAID deservedly won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Africa regions, a hopeful beacon for emerging writers from Cape Town, particularly for stories as yet untold.

Maxine Case was awarded with a fellowship at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2009. She spent three months in Pittsburgh as a City of Asylum/Pittsburgh guest writer-in-residence. She is now living in New York City where she is working on her Master’s degree in Fine Arts.


  • Look out for my review of a controversial character in BETE DE JOUR which emanated from a conversation I had with my sister



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