Review #32: The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed

Lynn Freed is the kind of author I want to be best friends with. She’s just awesome. This is the second book I’ve read by her (the first, Reading, Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the Page is one of my absolute favorites, and one that I like to flip back through for inspiration when I have writer’s block). We have a lot in common–we both spent our childhoods in South Africa, we’re both writers, and we both think a lot about identity and culture. Her fiction is (as she discusses at length in Reading, Writing and Leaving Home) basically thinly-veiled versions of her own life, and her protagonists are essentially her, albeit with different life circumstances. 

So, it’s because I know how close the voice of The Servants’ Quarters‘ protagonist, Cressida, is to Freed’s own that I feel comfortable declaring that I want this woman to be my best friend. She’s incredibly smart, independent, sassy, and fearlessly opinionated. And she’s an absolutely brilliant writer.

The Servants’ Quarters takes place in Durban, South Africa, shortly after World War II. Cressida is a precocious nine-year-old living with her mother, her older sister, and comatose father. Her comfortable world is shaken up by a move to the titular servants’ quarters on the estate of Mr. George Harding, a disfigured bachelor with a timid nephew, Edgar, that Cressida is instructed to befriend. Mr. Harding takes an interest in Cressida and begins to serve as her mentor. The novel follows Cressida over the course of twenty years as her relationship with Mr. Harding develops.

This book almost felt like a retelling/re-imagining of Jane Eyre, and thus Beauty and the Beast as well. This is, however, its own entity; while the storylines feel somewhat similar, Freed makes it her own. She’s a stunning writer, with a dream-like quality to her prose that meshes well with her on-point characterization. Her sense of voice is incredible–as someone who grew up surrounded by South Africans, it’s amazing to feel the pace and the delivery and the tics of their speech transmitted so clearly on paper.

Cressida is a kick-ass protagonist and is definitely one of the best female characters I’ve experienced in a while. She’s so real–funny and flawed and complex–that you can’t help but fall in love with her. It’s to Freed’s credit that she can maintain Cressida’s characterization from childhood to adulthood–she’s still recognizable as the same person, with some of the personality quirks that one would expect to remain constant, but she grows and matures yet remains as compelling as ever. Cressida is the reason this book is so wonderful; she’s the primary reason that the somewhat played-out storyline succeeds so well.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, and encourage seeking out other works by Freed as well. She’s such a good writer, and not enough people know about her.

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