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The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  228 ratings  ·  48 reviews
Learning to survive in the  harsh interior of Southern Africa, a former slave seeks shelter in the hollow of a baobab tree. For the first time since she was a young girl her time is her own, her body is her own, her thoughts are her own. In solitude, she is finally able to reflect on her own existence and its meaning,  bringing her a semblance of inner peace. Scenes from h ...more
Paperback, 220 pages
Published April 15th 2014 by Archipelago (first published 1981)
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i waited too long to write my review for this book, and for that i apologize, because my memory of it has become a little jumbled. which, in a way, is fitting, since this is such a nonlinear and confusing splay of a book following an unnamed slave woman in south africa throughout her life: her horrifying capture and the destruction of her village as a young girl, her various owners and their treatment of her as she is moved around and sold, her rescue by a man she sees as a protector, but calls ...more
Elyse  Walters
I appreciated this book--- but I didn't love-LOVE it.
It's a book about slaves - one particular slave hides inside a boabab tree.
She had several slave masters- was abused sexually- explores her history - and who she is because of her life.
The writing is complex - much is lovely - but it's not an easy flowing book to read -- I had a hard time understanding the 'depths- of - purpose' - for all the uniqueness.

"I reached the baobab with beating heart and a stabbing pain in the spleen that double
You could read this book in one go, perhaps you will, but that would be greedy.

There is a story already implicit in the author's name Stockenström. She like Penelope Fitzgerald became a published writer in later life, wikipeadia, damning with faint praise, describes her as "one of the leading female writers in the language" (ie Afrikaans). Here you can read an excerpt.

The novel is a narrative (naturally) narrated (helpfully) by an unnamed woman who almost finally says of herself "I was really a
Nov 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
But the most important point is that reality doesn’t fit into any words. Reality strikes you dumb. Everything important that happens in life is beyond words. There comes a point when you understand that if what you have experienced can be expressed in words, it means you haven’t experienced anything.
I cannot shake time off me. He squats continually before my tree. Everything that has been in my life is always with me, simultaneously, and the events refuse to stand nicely one after the other in
Mar 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is not an easy novel to read or to comprehend. It is often written in stream of consciousness style and involves the life of a woman captured as a child when her village was raided by slavers. The narrative is part memory, part recall of her life as a slave then mistress to her "benefactor", then a fever dream after a cross-veld trip goes horribly wrong. After that, her home and solace is the baobab tree, giver and prolonger of life. But the narrative does not f ...more
I came across this book by chance, first published as Die kremetartekspedisie in its original Afrikaans in 1981, it was translated into English by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, initially in 1983 and again in 2014.

I had never heard of Wilma Stockenström, but after a little digging, I find:

"For the past four decades Wilma Johanna Stockenström has been enriching Afrikaans literature with her satirical, obstinate and compassionate voice. Along with Elisabeth Eybers, Sheila Cussons, Ina Rousseau a
Neal Adolph
You don't read a novel like this one very often.

The sort that, like a summer fling that has lasted too long, feels like you are no longer in love and just now discovering its flaws. Perhaps the smile is just a bit wrong, or the summer on the beach has added a few too many inches to the waistline, or the hair is too unkempt, and that laugh is so annoying in a way that you never felt it before. The chemistry, which once was so strong, so dominant, the thing you surrounded yourself with like an oce
Ben Winch
Feb 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Sometimes I trust incoherent book recommendations more than I trust well-argued ones. An ability to conjure many and persuasive words, often as not, leaves me cold, especially if those persuasive words contain nothing personal, nothing that another reviewer equally endowed with “objectivity” couldn’t have said as well. On the other hand, a few simple words from my dad―“Try this, it’s interesting,” the review that served for both Tarjei Vesaas’s The Birds and Wilma Stockenstrom’s Expedition to th ...more
Roger Brunyate
Jun 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: hidden-gems, race, africa
If I could write…
If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree.
But of course she cannot write. For this is a former slave, captur
Apr 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A woman walks the same path each day from the hollow interior of a baobab tree in which she lives to her water source to collect her water. As she collects the water, she remembers the journey that brought her to this place.

She talks about her time in the veld. At first, her life in the baobab is difficult. She doesn’t know how to fend for herself and competes with animals for what she can scavenge, food that often makes her sick. She feels weak and scared and soon she finds that sleep is the ‘d
Apr 29, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a unique, dreamlike book that recounts the memories of a former slave looking back over the experiences of her life. It is unusual and rather difficult to describe, but the evocative language and situations will stay with the reader.
John Jeffire
Aug 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is full of gorgeous writing, like reading a long poem full of beautiful, memorable turns of phrase. Stockenstrom writes best when she writes simply, catching the voice of the slave girl as she addresses her protector and home, the baobab tree. Consider this passage as the narrator ruminates on sleep and dreams: "Only when I am asleep do I know fully who I am, for I reign over my dreamtime and occupy my dreams contentedly. At such times I am necessary to myself." Or this reflection on t ...more
Mar 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Achingly & heartbreakingly beautiful. A haunting, stream-of-consciousness story of slavery, survival, solitude, strangeness, & strength. The language is lovely. ...more
Naomi Ruth
May 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
*This review based on the Advanced Reader's Copy

I loved this story. So much. I love that it wasn't linear. I loved the way the words spiraled around me. I loved that I was made aware of a world I had never known about before. I loved how raw it was. How honest. It was a wonderful journey. I can't think of appropriate words to describe it ~ I shall try to formulate my thoughts better in a review elsewhere. For here, this review will just have to do.


I passed on my ARC and bought my own copy, fi
Jul 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
stream of consciousness narratives normally leave me cold, but this novella grabbed me from it's first lyrical sentence and wouldn't let me go. I hid in the Baobob tree along with the narrator and felt the fear, the delight, the horror, the calm, and the desperation of a young girl captured and sold into slavery. The weaving of time and tale were somewhat confusing but yield attention to Wilma Stockensturm's beautiful language and you too will be rewarded with an exceptional tale that will penet ...more
Jul 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Beautiful, poetic prose. The narrator's voice is like a dream. The winding run-on sentences flow with life. Reminds me a bit of Clarice Lispector. This is an amazing work of translation.
José Toledo
Jun 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
If there is any doubt that Wilma Stockenström is an awesome writer, you need no further proof than the man who chose to translate this beautiful, poetic novel: the master himself, J. M. Coetzee. That said, I would like to concentrate briefly on the original work. The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a first-person narrative account by a slave girl, presummably --although not specified-- in the southern cape of the African continent, at the beginning of colonisation in the XVIIth century. There a ...more
Felicity Gibson
Jan 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Expedition to the Baobab Tree
By Wilma Stockenstrom

Read 16th January 2014

This book read as a song. It is a stunning translation by J M Coetzee. It is perhaps the most lonely, sad book I have very read. It is the voice of a slave, who recalls her life of isolation, fear, shame and love. We never get to know her name and all other characters remain nameless. So we read of the life of a nameless girl, in a nameless place, in total solitude all her life. She is a slave – owned by others and yet
Nate D
Mar 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Disjointed lyrical descriptions drift from our protagonist's mysterious present, living alone in a baobab tree, to the episodes of her past as a slave, delineated by successive owners and a strange journey that borders upon the unreal. Perhaps it's my unfamiliarity with South Africa, but time period and location seem rather difficult to pin down, though the abolition of slavery across the British empire in the 1830s seems to give one limit. The experience of reading this was odd, perhaps even mo ...more
coetzee has a very nice intro for this so be sure and try to get that edition.
a slave hides, and lives inside a boabab tree and most of this novel takes place in her head, thinking about her past, and present. but also some abut her surviving alone in the bush, living in her tree.

karen does a wonderful job talking abut the difficulties of reading this difficult book , and the rewards, most aptly, here

for the completeist who reads all the books about peop
Nov 01, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: setwork, finished
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Apr 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
If you read this book, do it in one sitting. Feast upon it, it is worth it.
Stef Smulders
Jun 21, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: did-not-finish
A difficult read. The stream of consciousness type of storytelling is meant to strengthen the authenticity, but in my opinion only complicates things. The writing is at times beautiful but in some cases incomprehensible. At about 35% the action seemed to have come to a complete standstill and I gave up..
May 12, 2014 rated it liked it
In this lyrical and poetic stream of consciousness novel, we listen to an unnamed slave woman as she seeks shelter in a baobab tree in the harsh interior of southern Africa when she is left alone, for the first time in her life, after a failed expedition on which she accompanied her owner. As she struggles through her days finding food and water, she reminisces about her past and slowly we learn of all that has happened to her during her tragic life as a slave. Readers are drawn into her mind as ...more
Kathe Coleman
Dec 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Expedition to the Baobab tree was written in 1981 by Afrikaner author Wilma Stockenstrom and has recently been translated into English by Nobel laureate JM Coetzee. There are no names used in this book nor are we told the era or location. The protagonist was captured as a young girl and sold to the highest bidder to be used as a concubine. The only survivor of an expedition she a finds herself emaciated and grubbing for food while living in a hollow of baobab tree. Don’t want to say much mor ...more
Nov 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An enchanting, sensitive, spiritual, engrossing, mindful beautiful book. A woman enslaved, though not born a slave. She has nothing. Not even a name. She owns no property. She is property. But she has self. That is enough. Mostly.
Heather Buelow
Oct 14, 2014 rated it it was ok
Too much ambiguity and stream of consciousness for my taste.
Oct 28, 2014 rated it liked it
Like a prose poem of horrors told in such fluid light.
Caitlin Snyder
Dec 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
Beautifully written and hard to read. Stream of consciousness made the story hard to follow but once decoded, I was glad of it.
Feb 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, o
This might be the most beautiful book I've ever read.
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Wilma Johanna Stockenström is a South African writer, translator, and actor. She writes in the Afrikaans language, and along with Sheila Cussons, Elisabeth Eybers, Antjie Krog and Ina Rousseau, she is one of the leading female writers in the language.

She was born in Napier in the Overberg district. After finishing high school, she studied at Stellenbosch University, where she obtained a BA in Dram

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