The Smell of Apples. Evocative of summer days, sunny fields, and a fruit that's great eaten out of hand or chopped up and presented in a pie or salad. It does not bring to mind the last decades of apartheid, the cruelty of evil men, or a child discovering the worst parts of human nature. Mark Behr's novel follows the life of a privileged, white 11-year-old boy named Marnus Erasmus in 1970s South Africa. Marnus and his best friend, Frikkie, are keenly aware of the sharp racial divides in their country, even if they don't yet understand the injustice underlying them.
Despite the heavy load of its subject matter, Behr's prose moves along quickly, and he has immense talent for dialogue. We walk into Marnus' family and inner circle and observe a scaled-down version of the convoluted power dynamics happening outside the well-off family's gates. Marnus' father is a Major General in South Africa's air force, which exposes Marnus and Frikkie on a regular basis to the nation's conflicts and some of its most powerful officers. Racism, of course, reaches even into good-hearted Marnus, and the reader can't help but see that he knows no other way of thinking. These profound issues underlie life as an otherwise normal schoolboy, making the novel a politically charged roman-à-clef.
Marnus' narration stays pitch-perfect throughout; Behr's choice to tell the story through Marnus proves a crucial and very smart move. A child at this age, a turning point in the capacity to understand the complexities and motives in the adult world, makes an appropriate vehicle for displaying the situation in South Africa at the time. You'll learn a lot about that nation and its riches (gold and diamond mines) and the cruel politics now mercifully behind us.