The last book I read is Exile Child by Suzanne Franco. The biographical novel is based on the life of Sarah Baartman, a well-known woman in South African history. Here are my thoughts on the book during Women’s History Month.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this ebook by the author in return for an honest review.
What’s in a name
I have only known the spelling to be Sarah Baartman. Yet, throughout this book, author Suzanne Franco uses Bartmann as the surname spelling. Several online sources use Baartman.
To clarify the surname spelling, Franco explained to me by email, “There are no South African official documents stating Sarah’s name, as a slave she didn’t hold any documentation. The only official document stating Sarah’s name is her death certificate which was issued in France, which documents her official name as Sarah Bartmann. TO keep to historical documentation, I used the only document with the spelling of her name.”
My wanting to clarify the surname spelling might seem trivial, but it’s not if you know even a bit about Sarah’s tragic story. That is a name she was forced to take by a white man who ripped her away from her Khoikhoi village in Southwestern Africa and took her to London and Paris in the 19th Century as a slave. Her identity was taken from her, as were her family and home. In the book Exile Child, she is referred to as Girlchild at the beginning of the book as her real name.
A young life full of tragedy
It is hard to read many parts of the book, not because of bad writing but because of the difficult subject matter. Sarah Baartman is forced to parade around a circus-like show as though she is a freak. She is gawked at by many for her body shape looking different, made a spectacle, and treated barbarically.
The inhumane treatment is beyond awful, and author Suzanne Franco brings it all back with emotion by choosing a biographical novel format rather than an objective non-fiction account of the young woman’s life.
Even after Sarah passes away, she is still on display, as you know already if you are familiar with her life story. It is heartbreaking. It’s the second book in a row that made me cry. She only wants to return to her native land and be reunited with her brother, ensuring he is safe. That hope is dangled like a carrot in front of her, always a little too far out of her grasp.
There are many big, heavy themes. They include racism, slavery, abuse, and human endurance.
Sarah Baartman continues to be knocked down, literally and figuratively, throughout her life, as told through the pages of Exile Child. She is treated as less than, and even analyzed in medical exams to see if she was the missing link between apes and humans. It is shocking and horrific, and sadly, history points to it having been a reality.
As a slave, living in a cage, she continues to maintain hope that she will see her homeland and family one day. She clings to it. She is stared at, head to toe, with only a small piece of cloth hiding her lower region. When even that is removed, she loses her identity and falls into despair. She is hollow.
A few last thoughts on Exile Child
It would have been interesting if author Suzanne Franco had described her research for the book either at the beginning or end of it. That would have given even more depth to this particular book. I wondered how she gathered information and about her sources.
With so much to cover in such a young life, Exile Child presents Sarah Baartman in full emotion, as though we, the readers, are going through the horrors with her. While it was hard to read, it was a necessary read in a way so that I could learn more about what was and still is wrong in the world. What still needs to change. What has changed. And to pay my respects to Sarah.