Bessie Head’s A Question of Power is a novel on two levels: On the literal level, it is the story of the woman Elizabeth, who has come to Botswana with her small son as an exile from South Africa. Elizabeth first teaches school and later becomes involved in a cooperative farming venture designed to boost the economy of the village of Motabeng and to instill some pride in the Batswana. On this level, the story has little action and few emotional hills and valleys. On another level, however, the novel is a record of Elizabeth’s mental breakdown and of her wavering in and out of the terrifying world of insanity. The daytime world of Elizabeth’s mundane chores and her routine work at the school and later in the gardens contrasts sharply with the nighttime world that eventually takes over and leads to her total mental collapse.
Reared in South Africa by a foster mother, whom she believes is her true mother, Elizabeth is shocked, on being sent to a mission school, to learn that her mother is white and that she is living in a nearby mental hospital. Elizabeth’s teachers are warned to be on guard against any signs that the child is afflicted with the mother’s illness. Only after Elizabeth leaves South Africa to answer an advertisement for teachers in Botswana, walking out on a cheating husband and taking with her a small son, does she indeed start to show signs of insanity. Within three months of her arrival in Botswana, the normal and the abnormal start to blur for Elizabeth. She starts to hallucinate, and in the fantasy world created by her disturbed mind, she is obsessed with questions about the soul and the nature of good and evil. Good...
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