This book has a beautiful cover. The letters of the title are punched out so that the red strawberry pattern on the page underneath show through. The title is the name of a song by Miriam Makeba (there is also a version by Hugh Masakela). In the novel, the song is a trigger for Stella, the main protagonist. It plunges her back into her teens on holiday with her mother in Greece, when she hears it by chance, some fifteen years or so later. The whole time I was reading this book, it was my ear worm.
The other most significant protagonist is Francoise. She is a Rwandan woman who lives with her sister, Dudu, in Observatory, Cape Town (there is an Obs in Jhb too). Francoise is a sympathetic, interesting and credible character. Her story is one of a harrowing escape from Rwanda with Dudu, who is a handful to say the least; volatile and wilful but passionately loyal to Francoise. At times she appears to sabotage Francoise but this is linked to their joint traumatic experiences. As Francoise says, they are a package deal.
The different players in this drama all meet at artist, Ivor Woodall’s life drawing class at his studio in Observatory. Luke and Jude are students, Stella and Timothy are friends and Francoise is the model. Luke also models, Ivor has a thing for Luke and Jude, Luke’s girlfriend or fuck-buddy, inserts herself into the action. Timothy is a rescuer and is in love with Francoise. Stella’s mother died six months ago and it just so happens that the drama in Greece when she was on holiday with her mother, was centred around Ivor.
The perspective shifts mainly between Francoise and Stella with forays into the lives of the bit part characters. Francoise reflects on her past in Rwanda and Stella also looks back to her past as she tries to make sense, not only of her mother’s death, but also of her life. The time spent in Greece was ruined for her because she had a crush on Ivan but her mother horned in and took him over. Furthermore, Ivan had persuaded her to keep his shocking secret that she stumbled upon in Greece and this had an enormous effect on her life. The only trouble was, when I discovered the nature of the secret, I was disappointed; my reaction was, oh, is that all? and that ruined your life?
The storyline and the characters were intriguing and showed promise; I was interested in discovering how all the strands would come together. Unfortunately, the development of these strands was unsatisfactory. The switches in time and perspective were a little jerky. The characters were either too bitchy (Ivan), too wacky (Luke and Jade) or too ineffectual (with the exception of Francoise, the most authentic character). Stella, in particular, was annoying in her wallowing over the past and her mother. Then to top it all, the ending of the novel was bizarre and barely explicable.
There may be some that would enjoy this book, which was well written, but for me it was like watching your favourite rugby or football team playing so brilliantly in the first half that you know they will win and then it all falls apart in the second half; disappointing when it promised so much.