CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2012
When 17-year-old Renee Pretorius arrives in Cape Town in order to attend ballet school and follow her dream of dancing, she immediately is subject to culture shock. Renee’s home is in farming country several hours north of the city, and her family is Afrikaans. Suddenly, she is thrust into a large metropolis where English, Afrikaans and Coloured are all mixed together. Renee finds her strict upbringing is at odds with the way the city students in her ballet class behave. And all around her swirl the demonstrations and riots which pit social activists against the authorities in an effort to once and for all bring an end to Apartheid. Renee is understandably overwhelmed, yet remains determined to succeed and prove to her family that she is capable of managing in her new world.
Brenda Hammond has woven together various threads which combine to produce Cape Town, an excellent young adult coming-of-age novel. The story is told from Renee’s point of view, and much of the plot deals with her adjustment to city life, university, and the stress and competition she encounters in her ballet class. Female readers will be drawn to this novel right from the cover, especially if they have an interest in the arts, and specifically in ballet. The love story will also attract young adult female readers as Renee finds herself attracted to Andy, an architecture student whose background is English rather than Afrikaans. Hammond keeps readers in suspense as to what Renee’s final decision about their romance will be as it becomes apparent that Renee is unlikely to be able to maintain a relationship with Andy and still be accepted as part of her family. Readers follow Renee’s thinking and emotions as she struggles to decide what will be best for her, for Andy and for their future. The love story is sweet and gentle and has overtones of tragedy, particularly near the end when Andy has disappeared and Renee wonders if he is alive or dead, and if she will ever see him again. Cape Town is not a love story which keeps you on the edge of your seat, but rather it is a more slow-moving and thoughtful description of how a loving relationship develops over time, even with all of the odds stacked against it. Different upbringings and cultures and very different philosophies will have to be reconciled if Renee and Andy truly are committed to one another and to their love.
If there is one keynote for this novel, it is tension. On a personal level, Renee must deal with the tension of leaving home and coping in a strange urban environment which is quite alien for her. Because her ballet schooling depends on a scholarship, she faces the tension of hours of physical exhaustion during classes and rehearsals in order to maintain her position at the school. She must also juggle her feelings for Andy and her natural inclination to be a ‘good daughter’ and follow the path set out for her by her parents, her brother Etienne, and her church.
The personal tensions felt by Renee mirror the larger tensions around her. Hammond sets Cape Town in 1989, a time when South Africa was struggling with Apartheid and its effects on so many citizens. Within the novel, Hammond presents the political tensions in the form of demonstrations, riots, and secret police. Andy and his family are involved in the struggle to rid the country of Apartheid, and another character who is close to Renee is Dion, a coloured student at the ballet school. There are tensions when Renee wonders if Andy is telling her the entire truth about his political involvement. And more tension arises when both Andy and Renee realize that some person or persons close to them seem to be reporting to the secret police.
The word Apartheid and names like Tutu and Mandela are used in the novel which gives it a very realistic ring and helps readers understand the turmoil of South Africa and Cape Town during the time in which the novel is set. Young adult readers may not recognize or understand the significance of this era in world history, but Hammond’s introduction to the combination of excitement and despair felt by her characters may inspire some readers to dig a little deeper and find out more about the history of South Africa, the abolition of Apartheid, and the route the country has taken in more recent years.
Brenda Hammond grew up in South Africa and later studied ballet in London, England. Consequently, it is not surprising that she has written a novel which seems to so completely understand and love both of those worlds. She is able to take her readers into Cape Town where they can see, hear and smell the city through her detailed descriptions. As well, she gives her readers both the aching limbs of ballet class and the triumph and elation of performance. This novel takes readers into both of these worlds and convinces readers they truly are a part of them. What a disappointment when one turns the final page and is forced to leave!
Ann Ketcheson, who lives in Ottawa, ON, is a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French.
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