I chose to read this because I was attracted by the cover since the first time I saw it. The title as well was very alluring. I took it home one day, and it sat there waiting, till now, or precisely till two weeks ago, when I finally picked it up. I’m very happy I did.
“The Year the Gypsies Came” is the first novel by Linzi Glass, who was born and brought up in South-Africa during the Apartheid. The book owes much to what she experienced during that time, but the book is not a memoir. It’s the very delicate and yet tragic story of a family during the 60’s in Johannesburg, told through the eyes of 12 year-old tomboy Emily.
They live in a great old house surrounded by two acres of wild garden, on the edge of a bluegum wood, so that at night the sounds of the forest and the nearby zoo make them feel like they’re in a savanna.
But Emily’s family, like so many others, is not a perfect one. Her self-absorbed, beauty-queen mother, and her shabby and frustrated father are always on the verge of a crisis. Emily is constantly but silently seeking affection from them, but they never seem to notice it. What she doesn’t receive from her parents, Emily gets it from her beautiful and kind-hearted older sister Sarah.
Sarah, who sees the world brighter than it is.
It’s so refreshing, for once, to read about a relationship between sisters that is not an endless fight, but instead is based on admiration without jealousy from Emily’s part and on care and love from Sarah’s.
Since their parents can’t stand to be together alone and face their problems they discover a way of avoiding tension that seems to work like magic: inviting a guest to stay with them for a while, and make their problems disappear.
That is why, that year, their father brings home not just one guest, but a whole caravan of Australian travellers. They weren’t exactly gypsies. They were nomads. But as Emily says for me they were, and always will be, gypsies. For they came to us that spring in a caravan and cast a spell over us, and changed our lives forever.
What I loved most about this book is the way it’s written. The only word that I can find that describes it it’s gentle. It feels like a petal that softly touches the story and never intrudes too much. You can almost smell the flowers and the trees with exotic names (jacaranda, poplar, bluegum…) while you listen to a story told by Buza, the Zulu watchman who sits on a wooden stool all night at the edge of the garden, holding his stick who has been passed through generations and holds the power of sixty dead Zulu warriors.
These stories and the relationship between the old Buza and Emily, is what makes this book special. I learned a bit about the traditions and myths of the Zulu culture which I knew nothing about, and I also learned to love Buza’s wise way of looking at the world. It’s him that Emily goes to when she has troubles understanding the people around her or when she needs advices. His stories have always something to do with her life as well, and sometimes they help her to cope with it, or to see things in a different way.
I particularly loved the tale of the Great Morara, the wolf warrior of the Blue Mountains of Lesotho, and Bohato, the young she-cub who was sent in the valley to learn an important lesson. That sometimes the people who make the most noise are the ones who hear the least. (…) It is the sounds in here that we must listen to. The inside voices that we cannot hear with our ears but instead feel with our hearts.
Somehow the actual story of the book seems less important to me than what happens around it. Buza with his stories, Emily and her cattery club, Sarah with her marmalade-scented hair and her kindness towards everybody, the bond that Emily establishes with Streak, the older brother of the family, which is sweet and special. And it’s as close to love as it can get at that age.
I don’t think that the tragedy is what the book is about. To me it feels like it was an excuse to tell us about these characters and their relationship between each other, and to make us care more about them when the tragedy strikes. And it worked.
I really enjoyed it and I'm going to recommend it in the store. Also I think I will look for her second book, Ruby Red, one day.