PrintE-mail Written by Andrew Marshall

Set in a South Africa where apartheid never fell, Azanian Bridges tells the parallel stories of Sibusiso, a young Zulu tribesman caught up in the struggle for racial equality, and his interaction with Martin, a white psychologist and creator of a device that allows people to experience each other’s thoughts and feelings. In a society maintained by enforced segregation to prevent people seeing each other as equals, the invention’s capabilities make it a very dangerous one.

The book has more than a few echoes of the totalitarianism of Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, although not with the same dystopic intensity but more a speculation of the kind of authoritarian regime South Africa could very easily have descended into, had apartheid continued and further isolated the country from the rest of the world.

As well as the more overt racism of the security services who murder black people with impunity and without consideration, there are other forms so insidious that those engaging in it might not even realise it. Martin genuinely believes in his colour-blind perspective, yet is well aware of the perceived inferiority of black people making Sibusiso a more viable (ie expendable) test subject for his device. The different ways Sibusiso and Martin are persecuted give striking examples of what white privilege actually means, and in doing so hold up a mirror to our own modern society, that likes to believe in its notion of equality and justice for all, yet still finds innumerable ways to highlight the superficial differences between each of us, and pre-emptively punish those falling outwith certain applied categories.

While the book’s subject matter is inarguably significant, the style in which it’s written leaves something to be desired. The regular injection of Zulu and Afrikaans into, respectively, Sibusiso and Martin’s thoughts, may well provide some authenticity of how people think and speak in a multilingual society, but the words frequently lack the necessary context for the reader to establish what they actually mean, and so quickly become annoying. Wood’s prose style is one of short clipped sentences, that allow for little in the way of personality to come through, as though they are being dictated to us second hand, rather than the characters telling their own story. As a result, the narrative is a flow of statements without empathy, that prevent us from truly experiencing what the characters are thinking and feeling. Which, given the book’s central premise, is an unfortunate irony.


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