Naledi, the narrator of Kagiso Lesego Molope’s young adult novel, could be mistaken for a stereotypical North American teenage girl, obsessed with boys, clothes, and music. But Naledi comes from a township in South Africa in the 1990s and the backdrop to her intensely personal family drama is that country’s transition out of apartheid.
The novel, which was first published in 2013, won South Africa’s Percy FitzPatrick Prize for Youth Literature, an honour Molope considered refusing due to the role FitzPatrick, an author and politician, played in making English and Afrikaans the only official languages of the country. Instead, she accepted the award and gave the money to a charity supporting African immigrants in South Africa.
This Book Betrays My Brother opens with the adult Naledi speaking directly to the reader. From there, the story flashes back 15 years to the mid-1990s, when she was a young teen and her brother, Basi, was in his last year of high school. Their family owns a grocery store and has recently left the township – referred to as the Kasi – and literally moved up the hill to where the people are predominantly white and the fences are tall. Basi finds success at his new private school but continues to engage in the struggles and revolutionary politics of the Kasi.
Naledi is not rooted in either world. She spends her life in cars being driven from home to school to the grocery store and back home. Their mother, despite have grown up under apartheid, now feels their family is different from – and better than – those they’ve left behind, even if she’s not fully accepted in her new world. “Five White people asked me to get them their size. I counted this time,” the mother says to her children during a shopping trip. “I said, ‘I don’t work here, my dear. I just buy.’”
A year in the characters’ lives is laid out in cinematic scenes of parties, rugby matches, days spent working at the grocery store, and time spent with friends and family.
At first Basi appears to be a loving brother and quiet charmer but is slowly exposed as not all that different from the other boys in the Kasi who hiss and curse at passing girls – especially the ones who ignore their advances. Naledi has been conditioned to believe that Basi “alone would carry [the family name] into another generation, while I was bound to drop it like a careless child with buttery hands.”
As the story careens toward the betrayal, we see Naledi’s awakening to her parents’ tunnel vision regarding their love for her brother, juxtaposed with the way men and women are held to different standards in the Kasi. Molope’s prose is exhilarating and she shines in the development of a character that you not only root for, but are desperate to defend.
Molope is craftily writing on two levels. As much as Naledi claims she’s coming clean with this story, the reader isn’t fooled. The book is not an apology but rather a defence – with damning evidence against everyone who has let her down.