DISPLAYING a 19th-century novel’s scope, but with concerns rooted in the 21st, A Sin of Omission is enthralling. Through the life of Stephen Mzamane, a high-born but starving Xhosa child, adopted and Christianised by Anglican missionaries, Marguerite Poland cracks apart the Victorian colonisation of the Eastern Cape.
The deft structure moves seamlessly between the present, in which Stephen chooses between loyalty to his mission or the bonds of family and friendship, and past events that have led him here. Plunged into township drinking dens and “hotel conversationones” for newly ordained clergy, we sit under thorn trees resting exhausted horses, and under fans, sipping tea, in rectory drawing rooms.
Poland’s knowledge of Xhosa and indigenous beliefs, together with love of the Eastern Cape landscape, and the metaphors traditionally used to describe it, makes for total immersion. Shards of Xhosa — Mfundisi a term of respect for a holy man — intensify the rhythm of the characters’ interior and exterior world. “Kanti ke sizokubulala ulwimi lwentsimbi. Therefore, we will smash the bells. We will destroy the iron tongue of God.”
Female characters play a symbolic part in the plot but take a back seat in the action. Unity, the wife of Stephen’s feet-of-clay friend Albert Newnham, is magnificently drawn and, with concerns for china tea services and society, is an heir to Middlemarch’s Rosamond. Elizabeth Madikane’s image mesmerises Stephen before he ever meets her, but her power remains essentially a wordless one, as she drives Stephen’s and his elder brother Mzamo’s fate.
Stephen’s and Mzamo’s relationship will resonate with siblings, while the friendship between Stephen and a fellow ordinand, Albert, is a telling portrayal of hope and affection slowly crushed under worldly pragmatism.
For all its sadness, A Sin of Omission fashions beauty out of tragedy and oppression.
Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.
A Sin of Omission
Envelope Books £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69