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‘Plenty of humour, yet politics darken the idyll, and beautifully written’ – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Queen of the Free State

Published in The Witness

MEMOIRS by relatively unknown writers inevitably make you ask – why would anyone want to read about someone they have never heard of? Apologies to Jennifer Friedman here: she is a published poet, but sadly poetry confers little celebrity these days within the reading public.

Friedman, now living in Australia, grew up in a small Free State town in the 1950s and 60s, the daughter of the local pharmacist, and a member of the only Jewish family in an overwhelmingly Afrikaans and conservative environment.

She was an imaginative and rebellious child and that immediately put her at loggerheads with parents who were determined to conform and not stand out too much, and who seemingly made no allowances for their eldest child.

The style is episodic: short chapters telling of events in what was in some respects an idyllic childhood. Jennifer loved and was loved by the family’s servants who gave her the affection her parents seemed unable to express.

There is plenty of humour, including one hilarious scene when she bites a teacher because she wanted to know what she tasted like. And another, which many female readers will relate to – the horror of being taken off by an embarrassing mother to buy the dreaded first bra.

But there is a darker side to Friedman’s story. Politics begin to intrude, darkening the idyll as unknowable and incomprehensible adults react to the Sharpeville massacre and the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd. There are undercurrents of racism and anti-Semitism, and above all, Friedman’s ongoing battles, sometimes physical, with her parents, who do not come out of this memoir with much credit.

The writing is beautiful, as you might expect from a poet. It lifts the story, giving it weight beyond its telling of a small life. Though, of course, no life is really small, and to be able to glimpse the experiences of another is a way to make sense of some of your own. Also, stories from South Africans of all backgrounds add to the rich and often disturbing history of the country, an important archive for the future. – Margaret von Klemperer

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