Published by: Published by Umuzi, an imprint of Random House (Pty) Ltd
ISBN-10: 1-4152-0001-7
ISBN-13: 978-1595582218

Reviewed by: Pixie Emslie

Genre: Fiction

Play-white. That is what Zoë Wicomb calls the "game" people played when they tried to pass themselves and their families off for white during South Africa's apartheid years. Their subterfuge to protect themselves and their families from being seen to be the wrong colour is at the heart of this wrenching story that is filled with familiarity for every South African who grew up and lived through those tumultuous years.

For Marion Campbell, her father's little mermaid, life was that of a white child, albeit from the poorer side of town. But for her parents the truth was very different. Marion's mother was prepared to sacrifice all for the sake of being accepted as white, her father was alienated by not being able to see his extended and loving coloured family. Together, they were the "play-whites", the coloured people who had managed to get their racial classification changed to that of white, because they looked like whites, and sounded like whites.

But these things cannot be kept secret forever and Marion's curiosity about her background turns into realisation when she sees a picture in the newspaper, a face that reminds her of Tokkie, the coloured woman who loved her and nurtured her. Tokkie was of course, her grandmother, pretending to be the coloured maid, able to visit their white suburb in that guise so that she could spend time with her son and his play-white family.

Marion's life is perhaps summed up by her old, widowed and lonely father. "Your mummy only wanted the best for you, Marientjie." Her discovery of the truth leaves her lonely, empty and looking for meaning in life. Her relationship with her best friend is fraught with all the tensions of their background, and later, her relationship with her white boyfriend is also touched by the change. As she says "Once I was white, now I am coloured. If everything from now on will be different (which is also to say the same), will the past be different too?"

Searching for her heritage she travels to the UK, only to meet a black man who she also battles to come to terms with and, returning home, she can't get really close to her childhood best friend either.

Beautifully crafted, this story sums up the heartbreak of generations in the life of one play-white woman.

Pixie Malherbe is a South African journalist and communication consultant. She was on newspapers for years, worked on women's magazines in London and then ran her own communication consultancy for about 12 years. She was President of IABC Southern Africa (International Association of Business Communicators) and was given their Chairman's award in Toronto in 1995. She is currently a stringer for local newspapers.

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