Every once in a while a book lands on my desk that I immediately know is an important read, and The Choice Between Us by Edyth Bulbring is one of those books. While at a glance this is a story that's skewed by the lens of two highly unreliable narrators, there's a bigger tale at play in which Bulbring offers readers snapshots of two very different South Africas, her narrators both in some way limited by their environments.
The Choice Between Us alternates cleverly between the lives of two young girls. It's 1963, and we see the world through Margaret's eyes. Her father is a well-to-do doctor, and she has a closer relationship with her nanny than she has with her own mother. Incredibly sheltered and totally naïve, she makes social blunders that ultimately have dire consequences within the toxic stewpot of apartheid-era South Africa. She is very much a product of her time, and reflects many of the social mores you'd expect from someone growing up in these circumstances – a privileged, oft-indulged child, yet I can't help but love her for her obliviousness.
Fifty years later, her relative Jenna goes to help her grand-aunt C-C pack up the old family house, and in doing so uncovers tantalising snippets into the history of her family. A damaged young woman, she in turn damages people around her through her actions. My heart bled for her, and there were times when I was yelling, "No, don't do it!" at the book. Yet watching her arc unfold was also incredibly satisfying, because despite her quirks, Jenna shows a surprising resilience and uncommon wisdom once she decides to take responsibility for her actions.
But what makes this book so powerful in my mind is how it effortlessly juxtaposes two vastly different eras. As a child of the 1980s, I grew up during the tail end of apartheid, so some of what Margaret expresses echoed with me in my family's attitudes from when I was younger. And yet Jenna's great disillusionment and, dare I say it, borderline nihilism, also touched me. This is not so much a story about two young woman, but rather glimpses into the lives of other people viewed through imperfect lenses and coloured with pronounced biases, and therein lies the charm. As always, Bulbring's characterisation is spot on. She understands the multitude of human cruelties all too well, down to the false smiles and barbed comments, to the larger evils. And yet she also offers us a glimmer of hope among the brokenness.