Cass Moriarty's Reviews > Shadow Sisters

Shadow Sisters by Shelley Davidow
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it was amazing

Shadow Sisters (UQP 2018) is the new memoir by author Shelley Davidow, who mesmerised readers with her previous haunting non-fiction life account, Whisperings in the Blood (UQP 2016). I knew before I began this book that it was about Shelley’s life growing up as a white South African, and that it featured the tale of her sister, Rosie, who became a cherished part of her family despite her different skin colour. But what I didn’t know – or didn’t expect – was the twists and turns this tale would take, the emotive and disturbing themes it traverses, and the unlikely sympathies it evokes for a rainbow nation of discordant characters.
Growing up in a privileged white family under the rule of Apartheid, Shelley Davidow was always torn: between her social activist parents and the strict laws governing her country; between her youthful compassion regardless of race and the controlling racist regime; and between her love for her native land and her abhorrence at its treatment of its First Peoples. She was raised in a house of love, a home filled with siblings, with the addition of generations of black people who traditionally worked as household maids and servants, but whom she came to recognise as family. She was raised by Leena and considered her as an aunt or a grandmother. And when Leena became too old and frail to work, Shelley’s family continued to support her, both financially and through inviting her to remain living with them (despite this form of contact being officially illegal). Through Leena, the family is introduced to an abandoned girl, three-year-old Rosie, whom they welcome into their home and their hearts with their usual warmth and kindness. Rosie is raised as just another sibling; skin colour means nothing to children.
But Rosie’s childhood is tortured by scars that run deep, many of which Shelley doesn’t discover until years later, after Rosie has left the family, having seemingly abandoned them to go back to her roots. This is the story of the betrayal enacted on Rosie, both wittingly and unwittingly; by those who meant the best for her, and those who meant to abuse her. It is also Shelley’s story – her burgeoning adolescence, her awakening of desire, the inappropriate relationships that marked her entry to womanhood, her travels far and wide in search of a safe place, her romance with a PhD student (now her lifelong partner), her conflicted feelings on motherhood and her nevertheless depthless love for her son.
This story took many unexpected turns. I didn’t foresee Shelley’s tumultuous personal relationships and her struggle with an eating disorder. I didn’t expect the fresh remembrances of childhood, punctuated by incidents and memories sharply familiar to my own experience of that time period. And while I expected a detailed and difficult exploration of race relations, I didn’t foresee the complexities and nuances that Shelley navigates around culture, language, customs, family ties, intergenerational trauma, grief and sacrifice. I was truly moved by this book, and awed by the way in which Shelley manages to dissect complicated racial history and enmeshed interpersonal relations both empathetically and compassionately. This is perhaps truest towards the end of the book, when she regards her own white privilege, even to the point of telling this story, wishing it to have an ending that correlates with her prism or perspective of the world, and trying to understand how and why her own beliefs about what is right and true may not accord with others.
This story is poignant, sad, funny, perceptive and engaging. It is honest, frankly so, even when honesty is not pretty. It examines not only reconciliation but the damaging forces that precede it. It is a book of violence, and of violent acts, of self-sacrifice and the indomitability of the human spirit. It is a search for truth, and a search for an understanding of that truth. And it all plays out in the wild and beautiful landscape of the African continent. The last images in the book – of grainy old photographs, of massacres and stolen children, of broken stories and the confluence of narratives from different perspectives – will stay with me.
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Reading Progress

May 14, 2018 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 15, 2018 – Finished Reading

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