Today, Johanna McCalmont reviews the YA novel Halley’s Comet by Hannes Barnard, translated from the Afrikaans by the author (Catalyst Press, 2022).
“Why couldn’t we have just been three rebel teenagers?” she said. […] “Meeting up secretly for the pure thrill of it? Just because we knew it was illegal. Just because we were tired of society telling us what to do?”
Pete, Petrus and Sarita’s lives collide one fateful night when the two boys save Sarita from a violent sexual assault on deserted farmland outside a small South African mining town.
An unlikely – indeed illegal – friendship grows between the three sixteen-year-olds who break all the racial segregation laws when they start to secretly meet in Sarita’s father’s shop while her parents visit her grandmother on Sunday afternoons.
Set in Apartheid-era South Africa, Halley’s Comet is narrated primarily from the perspective of Pete, a white Afrikaans-speaking rugby player, who should be having his best year ever, finally playing for the firsts and getting ‘his’ girl. As he gets to know the others, however, his eyes are opened to the injustice around him. He is carefully challenged by Petrus, a black farmhand’s son, who cautiously explains things how they are, and urged to hope for a better future by Sarita, the daughter of a strict Indian shopkeeper. As Pete begins to question family and friends around him – at school, rugby and church – the ugliness of the deep-rooted racism upholding apartheid is revealed.
In parallel to Pete’s narrative, short chapters are narrated by Venny, a member of a network that is planning big things to bring about change in the country. Plans that build the tension and draw the plot to an explosive conclusion.
Barnard’s characters are by no means moralising figures in a piece of dry historical fiction. Pete and his best friend Barend’s raging hormones virtually leap off the page. Petrus’ fearful conversations with baas Pete are painfully fraught. And Sarita’s words, that sound wise beyond her years, offer not only hope, but also effectively evoke the differences in levels of maturity that many teenagers experience around that age. With a sprinkling of the original Afrikaans and countless contextual details – places, brands, music in the background, food, drink, and of course the search for Halley’s Comet itself – Barnard transports readers back to a specific period in time, one that may be familiar to older readers who were teenagers looking for Halley’s Comet themselves, or one that young adults today can explore and reflect on for the first time. This YA story is a crossover novel that is bound to stay with readers – young and old – long after they finish it!
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Johanna McCalmont is a Northern Irish translator and interpreter based in Brussels where she works from French, German, Dutch, and Italian. Read more about her work here and follow her on Twitter @jo_mccalmont.