When would-be folksinger Rachel Boucher is raped and impregnated by former high school crush Jason de Klerk, the ensuing custody battle tears apart Athens, Ohio. That the aimless, unemployed de Klerk would have any parental rights at all is only part of what puzzles in Rachel’s Blue, Zakes Mda’s deeply peculiar novel.
Rachel, 23, is a would-be folksinger and nascent activist who lives with her grandmother, Nana Moira.The “Blue” of the title refers to the Amish ragdoll Rachel remains oddly attached to:
When everyone was gone, Blue was the one to have stayed. There was Nana Moira, of course, but she didn’t count that much. Blue, on the other hand, was always with Rachel. She was not apt to die in a war or disappear in a fog of drugs.
Fair enough, but Rachel is an adult. While performing, Rachel props the doll in her guitar case. When an inexplicably angry woman confronts Rachel over the doll, Rachel introduces Blue as if she were animate: “Blue, meet the nice lady.”
The strangeness only mounts with Jason de Klerk. Back home after wandering with an older musician, now deceased, Jason fixates on Rachel, while he’s volunteering at Nana Moira’s senior center: “This means he is not earning any wage but will occasionally get a few dollars as gas money.”
Jason charms everyone but Rachel herself, who is enamored of anti-fracking activist Skye Riley. Rachel’s blindness to Jason’s adoration is hard to accept: most women possess a keen radar for unwanted male affection, and are skilled at evading it. Not Rachel: Jason, madly jealous at her affection for Skye, assaults her.
An understandably traumatized Rachel takes some time to acknowledge the pregnancy, which is unwanted. But when a free abortion is made available, Rachel blows off the opportunity, telling herself the fetus is dead. The fetus has other ideas.
Any writing of pregnancy and abortion resulting from assault is freighted, fictional or otherwise. Yet, when Rachel is asked whether she wants to keep this infant, she answers no. Actually, she shrieks it. Why, then, does she get drunk instead getting the abortion?
There are women, this reader included, who would question the above scenario.
Mda is not insensitive to the assaulted woman’s plight; just the opposite. Rachel’s Blue is a deeply compassionate look at what some impoverished rape victims suffer: disbelief from family, friends, and community, limited access to legal services, few, if any, opportunities to rebuild their lives after being attacked.
In choosing a custody battle, Mda pointedly demonstrates the invasive legal horrors some raped women endure.Yet selecting Jason de Klerk as the character bringing suit undermines Mda’s cause. de Klerk—unwashed, uneducated, unemployed, the rapist, no less—is such unsuitable father material that any American court would likely laugh him to the curb. That Rachel, whom we’re told is neat and tidy, lives with her grandmother, a highly respected figure in Athens, further undermines de Klerk’s case.
Mda, who teaches creative writing at Ohio University, is renowned in his native South Africa, where he is the recipient of numerous awards. Rachel’s Blue is written in cadences reflecting neither Appalachia’s unique speech patterns nor a particularly American dialect.
“Until the ribbing got into her—especially from Schuyler, the yenta queen who had taken a shine on her—and she began to have excuses when he asked her out to the Movies 10 or some such place.”
Word choices are decidedly Anglo: “Pa”, “physio” for physical therapy, “pillion” for motorcycle backseat. I’m not suggesting Mda edit himself. Rather, I wonder whether Rachel’s Blue might be best appreciated by readers outside of the United States.
There are times when a reviewer and book simply do not jibe. When the writing is poor, it’s easy to say why this is so. But when an author is highly regarded, any serious reviewer must question her judgment. No reviewer, however educated, cultivated, or widely read, is infallible. Rachel’s Blue did not work for me. The premise seems shaky, the characters did not sound as if they were Appalachian. Yet given Mr. Mda’s esteemed reputation, it may be that I am simply the wrong reader.