This novel traces the spiritual growth of Emily Brown as she develops from a lonely, embittered eleven-year-old girl to an emotionally distant, alienated young woman in her twenties, struggling with her lover, a journalist and former political prisoner, against racism in South Africa. The plot covers ten years, depicting the influences which ultimately shaped the young woman’s consciousness: an embittered father given to violent rages; a neurotic, loveless mother subject to bouts of hysteria; and white colonial society, replete with its drunkenness, depravity, and murder.
When she grows too much for her parents to control, Emily is sent off to live with the Le Roux family, where she finally receives the love she needs. While there, she becomes infatuated with Patrick Gallaway, whom she vows to marry when she becomes a woman. After five years in a convent school--much of it spent battling the repressive headmistress, Sister Immaculata--Emily returns to find Patrick married and a father. Their brief affair ends bitterly, and the young woman joins her parents in England. After a bout of aimlessness, Emily reunites with Virginia, a friend she loved at school who is now mourning the loss of a child, and through her meets Reuben Potgeiter, with whom she returns to South Africa to fight that country’s repressive policies.
Slaughter’s choice to present her autobiography as a novel ill serves the final work. Emily remains distant, locked away from the reader; one is allowed to observe the action swirling about her, but the incidents are presented episodically, which drains them of any cumulative power. Unfortunately, for all that Emily experiences, the novel remains as inert as stone.