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Publishers Weekly: "[A] powerful debut"

Date: Jul 11 2011

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André Carl van der Merwe. Europa (Penguin, dist.), $15 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-60945-050-2

Set during the Angola Bush War (1966–1989), this powerful debut exposes the violence of life in the South African army from the viewpoint of a young gay man. Growing up under the strict rule of his Afrikaans father, Nicholas van der Swart always felt out of place, especially after the tragic death of his older brother, Frankie, when the boys were children. Nick's father always insisted he wouldn't tolerate a "moffie," a derogatory Afrikaans term for homosexual, and one that was often bandied about in Nick's presence. It's expected that the mandatory conscription into the South African Defense Force when Nick turns 19 will toughen him up. The story shifts easily between Nick's childhood--the few happy years with Frankie overshadowed by bullying at home and at school--and his infantry initiation. Some of the push-until-they-break army grunt scenes lack original spark, but van der Merwe compensates with polished prose, atmospheric scenes, and rich character relationships, particularly those between Nick and three young men he meets at different stages of his grueling training. Ethan is the ethereal first love who satisfactorily doesn't disappear from the narrative; Malcolm becomes the reliable best friend who comes through in a pinch; and Dylan is the one who needs saving but might be beyond reach. Nick's homosexuality is never a cheap plot device; van der Merwe effectively uses the hatred and fear surrounding homosexuality to explore prejudice and what it takes to overcome it. (Sept.)

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