March 29, 2018

As the 1980s draw to a close, apartheid is in its death throes and South Africa is a mael­strom of polit­i­cal vio­lence. Young Mar­tin Hel­ger has prob­lems of his own. Out of place at an elite pri­vate school for Jew­ish boys, he is the son of a rough-hand­ed scrap deal­er and lives in the shad­ow of his enig­mat­ic broth­er, a neigh­bour­hood legend.

When an irre­sistible young Amer­i­can, Annie Gold­berg, boards at the Hel­ger home, a trans­fixed Mar­tin soon finds him­self wrenched out of the iso­lat­ed bub­ble of his sub­ur­ban Jew­ish exis­tence in Johan­nes­burg and thrust into the raw heart of South Africa’s racial strug­gle. At the same time, secrets from the past begin to emerge and old sins long-buried return in ter­ri­fy­ing new ways, tear­ing at the Hel­gers, a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Jew­ish fam­i­ly orig­i­nal­ly from Lithua­nia, even as the larg­er forces of his­to­ry and pol­i­tics tear apart the country.

Migra­tion, ter­ror­ism, rev­o­lu­tion, iden­ti­ty and mem­o­ry – these are just some of the bold themes bril­liant­ly and hon­est­ly explored in this pow­er­ful nov­el. At once a riv­et­ing lit­er­ary thriller, a mov­ing com­ing-of-age tale, and an unfor­get­table jour­ney through a fas­ci­nat­ing world, The Man­dela Plot enter­tains and ter­ri­fies in equal mea­sure, and res­onates pro­found­ly in light of cur­rent affairs.

Discussion Questions

Though a his­tor­i­cal nov­el, The Man­dela Plot by Ken­neth Bon­ert — which explores the com­plex­i­ties of race, reli­gion, and class in Apartheid South Africa — feels as rel­e­vant to today’s strug­gles as any book cur­rent­ly in print.

Cen­ter­ing around the young pro­tag­o­nist Mar­tin Hel­ger and a wide cast of sup — port­ing char­ac­ters includ­ing crooked cops, ANC ter­ror­ists, and Amer­i­can allies, the book is a com­ing-of-age sto­ry — not just of one young boy search­ing for his place in soci­ety, but also of a soci­ety try­ing to fig­ure out its iden­ti­ty. Told in an idiomat­ic Eng­lish that mix­es Yid­dish, Afrikaans, and African slang, the lan­guage of the book embod­ies the rich mul­ti­cul­tur­al fab­ric of 1980s South Africa.

This is a book that must be read care­ful­ly. Though decep­tive in its form as a lit­er­ary thriller, each char­ac­ter plays a sig­nif­i­cant role, and details at the begin­ning of the nov­el prove impor­tant lat­er in the work. Each char­ac­ter embod­ies an impor­tant facet of the book’s his­tor­i­cal set­ting, and they are woven togeth­er to depict society’s messy tapes­try. This is a book that will enter­tain, delight, and edu­cate you — and make you think.