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Merle

Merle

Maru by Bessie Head

Maru - Bessie Head

What a strange novella. Skillful in many areas, but dominated by a bizarre and manipulative non-romance – I’m not sure what to think, or what the author was trying to do. None of the positive reviews I’ve read address the problems with it, so if you have some insight, please do share.

 

This review will be full of SPOILERS, because the book is only 127 pages long and so nearly everything is a spoiler, and also to fully explain my confusion. But the story begins at the end, so it isn’t exactly a suspense-driven narrative.

 

Margaret is an orphan from a poor, marginalized and much-hated tribe in Botswana, but she’s raised by a missionary, gets an education and becomes a teacher. Her first job is in a remote village where she knows no one, and many of the locals are horrified when they learn of her ethnicity. She handles this situation with grace, and finds fulfillment in setting up her home, developing her artistic talents, a friendship with another teacher and a crush on a local Lothario, who reciprocates her interest.

 

Enter Maru, the Lothario’s best friend and the other teacher’s brother, and here’s where it gets weird. After one brief meeting, in which he confiscates her bed, Maru decides he wants to marry Margaret. So, he apologizes for his poor behavior and begins courting her, proving himself more steadfast than his friend… no wait, he doesn’t, because that would make sense. Actually, he keeps his distance, has other people spy on her for him, and threatens his friend to stay away, ultimately coercing him into marrying Margaret’s best friend. Margaret is heartbroken over this development, and Maru, of course, is concerned for her well-being:

 

“‘Is she sick, Ranko?’ he said smiling. ‘Is she dying? Don’t worry about that. Let her suffer a bit. It will teach her to appreciate other things.’”

 

Actually, he waits till she’s at her most vulnerable, then goes to her house (their second meeting ever), coerces her into marrying him and carries her off to some remote farm, away from everything and everyone she’s ever known. Where they live happily ever after, except when he’s telling her she’s worthless. But, but! Their marriage is a symbol of racial tolerance and is empowering to Margaret’s tribe, no other member of which actually appears in this book!

 

“Well,” I hear the astute among you thinking, “this marriage could be problematic but also a step forward in race relations, given that the majority people barely recognized this tribe as human before.” And that is true. Except that since Maru’s idea of wedded bliss involves stalking and kidnapping a woman he’s only met once, and carrying her off to live in the middle of nowhere so that he can farm rather than fulfilling his role as a leader in the village, it starts to look like he chose someone marginalized by society specifically because she’s undemanding and lacks the power to protest, giving him complete control. Maru isn't so much taking a stand against racial prejudice as he is taking advantage of it.

 

Despite the decidedly creepy direction of this story, I am giving 3 stars: the characterization is good, especially for a short novella, and there is some arresting imagery. I had no problems with the writing style, and clearly my attention was held, since I’ve produced a review of this length. But the plot is unsettling – perhaps the best explanation is that it was written in the 70s?