The narrative opens in the early days of the white settlement at the Cape, with the Dutch East India Company clinging precariously to a little piece of land in Table Bay, Robben Island. Pieternella is the daughter of Eva, one of the first interpreters and intermediaries between her Khoikhoi tribe and the Dutch, and Pieter van Meerhoff, the Company surgeon at the Cape. Pieternella and her siblings are amongst the first mixed-race children born at the Cape and their lives are a manifestation of a sentiment often expressed by Matthee in this novel, that life consists of heaven and hell rolled together in the same cloth. After her mother's sudden death, Pieternella and her brother Salomon are sent, reluctantly, as a orphan 'slaves' to foster parents in Mauritius, a penal colony at the time. The sea voyage is described in detail, wondrously imagined, with Pieternella making sense of the new experience in terms of her life at the Cape, so that to her the ship looks like a wooden goose floating on the water and she focuses on the animals on board to orientate herself on the deck, sheep-side and chicken-side. A premature marriage is Pieternella's salvation, but she remains attached to the memory of her mother and is full of turbulent emotions about how she is both brown and white in the same body. What will her children look like? Is she really a half-slave? Eventually Pieternella must learn to come to terms with her life in Mauritius, a realisation that will, with time, give her some peace and comfort.
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