The novel Children of Sugarcane tells a story that is not for the faint-hearted but does so with empathy and graceful language. For those interested in learning about a little-known period of South African history through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist, this novel comes highly recommended.
The author, Joanne Joseph, is a prominent media personality who has hosted multiple news shows on radio and television. Children of Sugarcane is her first novel – a meticulously researched and deeply affecting piece of historical fiction focusing on the indentured servants in the sugarcane fields of KwaZulu-Natal in the 19th century. The novel follows Shanti, a young girl living in an impoverished village in India. When she comes of age, intent on escaping an arranged marriage, Shanti runs away from the only home she has ever known to travel to what was then known as Port Natal – now the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. She is promised a better life in the British colony, but the reality is much bleaker than she expected. Working in indentured servitude on a sugarcane plantation, Shanti learns of the true brutality of colonial subjugation. However, she also discovers new friendships, falls in love, and finds the strength to survive. Ultimately, she must come to terms with her situation and fight back against a colonial and patriarchal society as best as she can.
The book is predominantly focused on Shanti’s inability to fit into her society’s misogynistic expectations of her: though women should focus solely on household duties, she loves to write and is hungry for knowledge of all kinds. Joseph frames the story as Shanti writing her own narrative, which further emphasises the novel’s theme of knowledge as a form of power. The prose is stellar throughout. Joseph pours love into the descriptions of dusty Indian roads and serene Durban beaches alike, yet her true strength as a writer lies in inhabiting the main character’s mind. Shanti is a wonderful heroine, full of barely contained ambition and determination, who possesses a rebellious streak that causes trouble on multiple occasions. Although many of the novel’s supporting characters are not quite as three-dimensional, Shanti herself feels like a real person. She is a well-rounded, compelling character whose thoughts and feelings seem to jump off the page.
Shanti’s spirit may be strong, but her experiences are harrowing and, in some places, painful to read. This novel is not concerned with sugar-coating history but rather exposes the realities of life as an indentured labourer in order to criticise the South African colonial system. Joseph’s research pays off in its detailed depiction of life on a sugarcane plantation, creating a setting that is fraught with tension and danger. Though the story is told from Shanti’s perspective, it prompts one to think of the many women throughout history who lived through similar experiences under patriarchal and colonial oppression. This is why the novel’s theme of education and the search for knowledge is so powerful. Shanti retains hope in the face of adversity because she has the opportunity to tell her story in her own words, and the novel ultimately argues that education is the key to escaping oppression.
Children of Sugarcane is an ambitious novel that deals with important topics and an aspect of South African history that until now has been largely unexplored. Although the subject matter is often brutal, it remains a well-written and touching story with a beautifully realised main character. Whether one is interested in exploring the novel’s feminist and anti-colonial themes or looking to learn more about South Africa’s history, Children of Sugarcane is a worthwhile read.