Frankie & Stankie

by Barbara Trapido
ISBN: 0747564329

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Frankie & Stankie
by Nancy Wigston

This novel by South African-raised Barbara Trapido belongs to the bildungsroman tradition: child is born, child grows up, child leaves home. In this case, Dinah, in infancy dubbed Tinymite, steals the narrative show from the beginning. By the unwritten rules of the genre, we know that the spotlight will focus on Dinah and not on her elder sister Lisa, a.k.a. Angel-face, later virtually eliminating the older child in favour of the weedy, asthmatic, imaginative younger sib. In one of Dinah's childhood games, the names "Frankie and Stankie" emerge from her unique reading of an Italian worker's song about a man called Carlo Franchi; from Dinah's brain emerges a song of two reversible clowns, Frankie and Stankie. Because this is post-war South Africa, and since the family are immigrants from Europe, although liberal,' we also know, with the certainty of a Jane Austen opening line, that Dinah will escape to a pluralistic society. These are truths universally acknowledged.
If the journey, not the destination, counts most, the journey at hand is the treacherous trek through childhood. The most gripping bits occur early on. Young Dinah's asthma keeps her unnaturally close to her mother, an anxiety-prone woman who likes to "off-load gruesome stories." We recognize both parents immediately. The mathematics professor father from Holland, always a "ready smacker"; is an independent-minded holder of strong opinions. In contrast, Dinah's mother is a German romantic, from a formerly wealthy family, who grows thin and sickly after the father's longed-for tenured appointment takes the family to humid Durban. Their shared dis-ease brings mother and younger daughter close, until Dinah enters the bewildering world of school, and her mother is displaced by more powerful entities.
Trapido is a strong, intelligent stylist who poses her young protagonist against the political backdrop of modern South Africa. On every side, darker-hued peoples are being squeezed out of their rights-to serve in the army, to live in desirable areas, to work in any but the most degrading jobs. A coloured' child disappears from Dinah's school. Eventually the odious Pass Laws codify racial differences to a frightening and absurd degree. The voice that informs us about racism hints that it's another European heirloom, like the asthma-causing dust-mites in Dinah's mother's German pillows. "The original pale-brown people of the Cape had called themselves Khoi, but the Dutch settlers called them Hottentots. The early Dutch had made so bold as to land because the Portuguese had recently proved to them that the seas around the Cape didn't boil. So the Khoi lost all their land to the Dutch and were turned into landless labourers. They also lost their language. Except for those peculiar clicks that got taken over by the Xhosa. Finally the Khoi stopped being the Khoi and became the Cape Coloured people" This sounds like a youthful inversion of the rubbish Dinah learned in her school history books. Typical is the thrust at European stupidity-"that the seas around the Cape didn't boil." >From her first day at school, Dinah encounters monumental stupidity in her classmates and disappointingly, in the teachers she likes.
It's clear that someone very like the London-dwelling adult Dinah is writing this bifurcated narrative, yet it's jarring to encounter the use of current terms like "street cred" when Dinah reaches her teens in the late1950s. Trapido immerses us in the details of Dinah's life, and such drenching can dazzle, like meeting someone from your high school who remembers not only every person there but also every course you took and all the people who taught them. Yet the charm of one precocious girl's life is up against a lot, given the circumstances. Heaven it may have been to grow up clever, white, bewildered, and liberal in South Africa, yet hell was all around.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us