Set in post apartheid South Africa, Zukiswa Wanner’s debut novel, The Madams, is a fascinating story about three women, their families, growing up, careers, marriages, friendship and the love-hate relationship between maids and their madams. about . The word ‘madam’ is often used as a form of respectful or polite address to a woman.
In the prologue, we are introduced to the narrator, Thandi- a liberated modern career woman, mother and wife- roles she enjoys and is good at. But she admits juggling the three roles gets hectic at times, and she’s therefore decided to hire a maid, something she thought she would never do. Her best friends, Lauren and Nosizwe encourage her to do so, albeit with different sentiments.
Thandi plans to hire a white woman, if only to gauge Lauren’s reaction. Lauren is white. She calls this her “social experiment”. Think she is racist? She says “…but there is one in all of us….how many times have you in the comfort of your own race, made a generalized statement about someone of another race, when they have failed to meet your exacting standards”. And maybe she is right- when she informs her dad about it; he is quick to respond “make sure she does the toilets!” Lauren always refers to blacks as “those people”- a term she says excludes Thandi and Nosizwe because they are different. One can’t help but wonder how.
There are other diverse themes covered as one reads on and as we get to learn more about the characters – their relationships, love and sexuality, sibling rivalry, class differences, domestic abuse, inner insecurities, broken trust, acceptance, the importance of friendship, and the much discussed (by women) brotherhood code between men- a topic many a modern woman today will relate to, South African or not!
All the three friends go through one or two of these experiences at one point in their lives and the reader can’t help but empathize with them. But these experiences offer great lessons to the reader- Lauren has been physically abused all her marital life, but when she’s had it, with lots of encouragement from her friends, she gets a divorce but with it comes the loss of her dignity and self-respect. Nosizwe doesn’t love her only sister, her relationship with her mother isn’t great either but after a heartbreak, she learns that all mean well. Sometimes in life we are busy feeling sorry for ourselves and hating other people yet all they have are good intentions for us. Thandi’s revenge when she learns about her husband’s affair shows “that two wrongs don’t make it right”.
What makes this book an engaging read are the different personalities of these women. The author doesn’t disappoint. By giving a brief glimpse into the backgrounds of her characters, she helps the reader understand them better; although at the end one question is left unanswered- what will happen to Thandi’s marriage? But maybe like her, one can only “live in hope” that all will be well.
Zukiswa Wanner was born in Lusaka, Zambia, went to school in Zimbabwe and studied journalism in Hawai. She now lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. The Madams (published by Oshun Books in 2006) was her first book.