Shifting Colours - Fiona Sussman

14th July 2014

The synopsis for this book was one which certainly intrigued me, as I have not read much fiction based in relatively modern-day Africa. Following the recent death of Nelson Mandela, the history of apartheid in South Africa has become a talking point once again, and it is refreshing to hear people talking so openly again about it.

In the 1960s, with racial tensions escalating in Johannesburg, a black house-servant called Celia Mphephu reluctantly allows her daughter Miriam to be adopted by her affluent white employers Michael and Rita Steiner. Miriam has spent most of her life shadowing her mother in the Steiner household, developing a bond with Michael who appears to be the only father figure in her life.

The Steiners decide that life would be safer for them and Miriam in England, where she will supposedly receive a better education and a better life. Celia has a husband who works in a mine, but the money he provides for Celia and her 3 sons is minimal, as pointed out by Rita. He eventually makes himself scarce for good, and after Celia and Miriam are eye witnesses to the police brutality toward blacks prevalent in the country, Celia accedes to the Steiner’s offer.

However, the life Miriam encounters in England is not what she expects, and the home life she experiences is devoid of love and affection. The Steiners are constantly arguing, as tensions over their failed pregnancies in South Africa continue to take their toll on their relationship. Michael still tries in vain to maintain a loving father-daughter relationship with Miriam, but Rita becomes intolerant of Miriam’s existence.

Miriam initially experiences being bullied by some of her fellow pupils at the school she is placed in, and seems completely detached after her sheltered early life with her mother. Adrift without companionship, she makes friends with an Indian girl called Zelda and is quickly made an honorary member of their Patel family.

It is this bond with Zelda which helps Miriam evolve as a young woman; the love the whole family, Zelda’s mother Rahini in particular, show for Miriam as if she was one of their own, is heart-warming. As an Indian family, they also have come to England for a better life and encountered frustrations because of their colour. It is likely for this reason that they welcome Miriam into their home, as they have experienced the alienation that Miriam has.

Back in South Africa, Celia’s attempts to get back in touch with Miriam are blocked by the authorities, and she is vilified for giving her daughter away. She also has her own struggles with maintaining employment, and keeping her sons – Miriam’s brothers - on the straight and narrow.

This book is not an enjoyable book, though this opinion should not be misunderstood. I do not mean that this is a bad book, but that it is one which makes you feel very uncomfortable reading. Celia’s life back in South Africa makes for extremely grim reading. The author Fiona Sussman has tackled a very sensitive topic admirably here. Blacks were treated appallingly during the Apartheid, and Sussman does not hide the worst offences of the infamous security police.

My only grievance about this novel is how quickly it moves through the years. There are some huge events in the life of Celia and Miriam which follow the adoption, yet they are sort of glanced over on the way to the next part of the story. I would have liked the author to spend more time setting the scene rather than rattle through the years at times.

This doesn’t overly detract from what is a very powerful and emotional book, and it left me thinking long after I finished.

I received this book for free, for taking part in the Goodreads First Reads program.

Rating: 4/5 stars

About the author:


Fiona grew up in a publisher's home in South Africa during the apartheid era.  In 1989, she emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand, where she completed a medical degree and went on to work as a family doctor.


Fiona returned to university to do a Master of Creative Writing and began to write in earnest.  Currently Fiona lives in rural Auckland with her family and three pets, while managing a charity hospital with her husband.