South African Paleoarchaeologist Zoe du Plessis is on a dual quest. When tragedy strikes, she tries to escape her pain by redoubling her effort to find evidence of early humans in the Kalahari.
Her family can trace their roots in Africa back three hundred years. The Du Plessis were Huguenots. Fleeing France to escape persecution, they went first to Holland then on to the Cape region of South Africa where they planted grapes and re-established themselves in the wine business.
Absorbing though Zoe's work is, it can't help her cope with the pressure of her Afrikaner heritage in the post-apartheid era. She is filled with pain, guilt and uncertainty. To free herself, Zoe must let go self-blame and toxic secrets.
Since childhood, she has kept her promise to Georgina, the family housekeeper, to never speak about something she was not meant to witness. Now she uncovers shocking secrets in her own family -- history that explains why her aunt and grandmother were shunned by other relatives. The disgraced Aunt Claire has left her a journal containing clues that lead Zoe to the truth. But knowing is not enough; she must share this explosive information with someone she trusts. Meanwhile, she learns that her brother Andre has been keeping secrets of his own.
Journeying with Zoe towards a more peaceful acceptance of who she is, we understand her in the wider context of her history. A poet she meets, a fellow-Afrikaner, speaks of their people's 'collective self-delusion.' Due to uncertainty about their place and identity, he says, "a whole nation was made to believe that ethnic pride and culture could only come from race." Now, though he admits the "the Rainbow Nation is an appealing brand name for a torn nation trying to heal itself," he finds this idea too simplistic. Integration and hybridization are natural evolutionary processes that "can't be socially engineered."
Pondering the complications of her nation, Zoe notices how other tribes resent the Zulus, and how black and Coloured South Africans feel their jobs are threatened by the influx of blacks from neighbouring countries including Congo, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
In this fascinating glimpse of contemporary Southern Africa, we travel from the camel thorns of the Kalahari to Stone Town in Zanzibar. We observe some customs of the San or Bushmen, who "gather their veld food with the self-assurance of an inveterate city shopper."
We also glimpse fallout from border skirmishes between South Africa and Mozambique, seen by locals as "a proxy war for the democracies of the West." As one man bitterly remarks, "They called us racists, but we came in handy when it came time to keep the commies in check."
We witness the behaviour of diehard racists and meet South Africans of various ethnicities as they work together in an effort to realize a new way forward. We hear how during the Apartheid regime, scientists were shunned at conferences, and glimpse recently discovered (1995) hominid footprints on the beach at Langebaan.
The challenge for each "poor human being biting into the thorns of existence" is to face up to the past, and then make the present better. The fact that South Africans are by no means alone in needing to do so makes this topic novel thematically universal as well.