‘Raaiselkind’ deur Annalie Botes, 2001 (Tafelberg) ISBN 0624040100 Annelie Botes’s novel Raaiselkind was shortlisted for the Book Data/SAPnet’s Booksellers’ Choice Award in 2002. This was the first Afrikaans book that reached this short list. This prize is awarded according to the votes of the members of the South African Booksellers Association. Raaiselkind was also shortlisted for the ATKV Prize for popular prose in 2002.
It is an unforgettable story of a mother’s selfless love, a community’s unresponsiveness to something that requires for them to step out of their ‘comfort zone’ and how something you have no control over can change your life forever. In a small town in the Eastern Cape a miracle is born. Long-awaited son with ten fingers and ten toes… The family soon realizes that although everything looks normal, something is wrong. Alexander is autistic.
The Oxford Dictionary defines autism as a rare and severe psychiatric disorder of childhood marked by severe difficulties in communicating and forming relationships with other people, in developing language, and in using abstract concepts; repetitive and limited patterns of behavior; and obsessive resistance to tiny changes in familiar surroundings. Autism is scary for it prohibits the one thing we all long for – relationship. His peculiar behavior disrupts the Dorfling’s family and social life and one by one relationships start to crumble.
After nine years of reaching out to a child that returns your love with aggressive behavior such as a growl, a kick or a scream, Alexander is found dead in a bath of water. The only person in the house at the time of death is his mother, Ingrid. With no signs of a forced entry and Alexander’s fear of water, she becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her own son. The reader is left with a shocking picture of a mother treated as a criminal long before she becomes a murder suspect.
A striking comparison is made with the life of a snail without a shell. A snail cannot live without its shell, as the organs beneath are delicate and will dry out. A snail also needs the support from the shell to move around and feed. The shell offers protection against dehydration and against enemies. The hopelessness, vulnerability and exhaustion of a mother are emphasized. The hurt experienced as a result of disappointment, mostly due to unfulfilled promises (e. g. he promise of a son to add to the joy of the family, the promise of friendship and support , the promise that comes with being part of a Christian community), is the acid that slowly destroys her ‘shell’. Her intense desire to meet her husband and two daughter’s needs conflicts with her maternal instinct of protection and unconditional love for her autistic son. Her internal struggles reflect the hearts of many mothers. It is often said that it is not possible to take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.
The effect of neglecting yourself due to a lack of support speaks to the reader about the importance of investing time in physical, spiritual and emotional care as well as the responsibility we have towards those we confess to love. We might not be able to solve a problem, but we can give others time to regain their strength to deal more effectively with what life throws their way. There are a few ‘Riddles’ that the reader is exposed to.
The obvious is Alexander; this child, his strange behavior and his internal world ‘self-created island’ raises many questions throughout the book – the mystery of autism. The second mystery relates to the happenings leading to the death of Alexander. What happened that day? The reader is left with unanswered questions, but this leads to self reflection and challenges your thoughts about the effect of external factors on your behavior and if it is possible to ALWAYS define right and wrong.
The last mystery is central to the novel and addresses the devastating effect (emotionally, physically & spiritually) of autism on the family structure. The reader realizes that this remains a riddle to those who are not part of such a family. It also makes the reader think how easy it is to think you understand when in fact you cannot imagine the reality of another’s challenges and pain. This book is not just for people in contact with autism (parent, friend, health professionals), but recommended for anyone willing to embark on a road of self-discovery.
Your thoughts and feelings regarding the characters and different situations they find themselves in, reflects something about yourself. It challenges your beliefs and past behavior. Painfully reminds you of times you were judged and times you judged. It emphasizes the importance of a support network for the whole family. In the end it is not solutions or answers that bring hope, but the willingness of one person to listen – just listen. The message of supernatural patience and love, the inner strength of a woman, moves the reader to a deep respect for every mother especially your own.
With her brutally honest writing style together with a deep knowledge of people, born from her own pain and shortcomings, Annelie Botes succeeds in touching the deepest parts of your emotions and leaves you with a feeling that the character could just as well have been you. You have to keep reminding yourself that the events are not based on a true story. The influence of Dalene Matthee is evident in her writing approach and if you have found Dalene Matthee’s work inspiring this novel should be next on your list.