Book Review: A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland

Is there a word – possibly in German, although I’m not ruling out other languages – for the exquisite misery to be experienced from reading a very sad story? The feeling seems to occur when you have a strong empathy for the character/s, so that their heartbreak becomes your heartbreak. You take comfort that it isn’t you or someone close to you that is suffering, but still you wallow.

One such exquisitely sad book is Marguerite Poland’s 2020 Walter Scott Award nominee, A Sin of Omission. Set during the late 1800s in the Eastern Cape area of South Africa, it follows the life of a young Anglican deacon, Rev. Stephen (Malusie) Mzamane. Rescued as a child on the brink of starvation when his Ngqika people are driven from their land, he is looked after by English missionaries. Given an English name, he becomes a good student, chosen for further schooling in Grahamstown, and eventually sent to Missionary College at Canterbury in England.

Here Stephen is again rescued, this time by fellow student, Albert Newnham, who helps him navigate the tricky waters of living in English society. Stephen teaches Albert Xhosa in exchange for Latin and Greek and the two become the best of friends. Stephen is entertained to tea and made to feel special, but on his return to Grahamstown he is reminded of the racial inequality between the governing white colonists and the indigenous population, even among supposed Christians. So while Stephen can speak like an Englishman, and has a fine intellect and a powerful Christian faith, his colour prevents him the usual privileges accorded to newly-trained missionaries.

Stephen is sent to an outpost at some distance with a tiny parish, a meagre stipend no support. The locals are poor, the church and his cottage are made of mud brick. As yet to qualify as a vicar, he craves the books and teaching he might have had if he’d gone to Grahamstown as hoped, and where Albert eventually arrives with his wife and baby. Their friendship is also put on hold by the demands Albert faces from his fussy young wife.

In the background, political instability creates further tension, rebels are mustering and divisions among the different tribes highlighted. Stephen’s brother Mzamo (he has refused the Christian name of Saul that was given him by the missionaries), a rebellious and charismatic man, gets into trouble more than once and so does Stephen by association. Poland creates some brilliant minor characters too – the understanding, no-nonsense and larger than life Rev. Turvey particularly stands out.

It all comes together to create a well-researched and brilliantly told story about this particular corner of colonial history from various points of view. But most particularly it is the story of a young man of great principal and courage who is not allowed to be true to his family, or his tribal heritage, yet neither is he allowed any kind of standing in the English missionary culture that has adopted him. It is a tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and according to the author’s note at the back, a story based on the life of a real person.

A Sin of Omission had me in thrall for about a week I was still thinking about it days later (and I imagine it will still be lurking in my thoughts months later). I cannot recommend it highly enough and will be looking out more books by this author. A rare five out of five from me.

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