Say hello to Mrs. Curren, our narrator and protagonist. Mrs. Curren is an elderly white woman living in Cape Town, South Africa in 1986. We first meet her at a point in which life hasn't been all that kind to her. After dealing with breast cancer for an unspecified period of time, Mrs. Curren goes to the doctor one day and finds out that her cancer has spread to her bones and is now totally incurable – basically, she finds out that she's going to die, and soon. On the same day as she receives this sad prognosis, Mrs. Curren finds that a homeless man, Vercueil, has set up camp on her property. Great, just great. As a first step in her preparations to leave the world, Mrs. Curren starts writing a letter to her daughter, who lives in America; the events in the letter begin with the double-whammy of her cancer diagnosis and the arrival of her uninvited guest.
Life Through Letters
We learn a ton about Mrs. Curren's background by reading her letters: she spent many years as a university professor – her specialty was Classics. She was married for a long time, but she's no longer with her husband. He's dead now, but it's unclear as to whether it was his death that separated them or if they split up even before he died.
We also learn a lot about Mrs. Curren's tenuous relationship with her daughter. She claims to love her daughter desperately, but we also sense that there's more than just physical distance between the two of them – they also seem to be emotionally disconnected (for example, it appears as though letters are as close as they get to communicating). What's interesting about Mrs. Curren's relationship with her daughter is that at times we stop getting any vibe that Mrs. Curren misses her daughter as an individual; rather, she seems to view her daughter as the vehicle through which she can live on after she dies. Her daughter starts to seem less like a person and more like an abstract concept.
Loner to Landlord to Friend
Mrs. Curren's relationships with others, including her daughter, play a huge role in shaping her views of her last days on earth. As she realizes that her days are numbered, Mrs. Curren thinks about her daughter fondly, but she also starts to realize how alone she really is now that her daughter (and thus her grandchildren too) lives on an entirely different continent.
Enter Vercueil: maybe this guy is in the right place at the right time. When we first meet Mrs. Curren, the last thing she wants is for some random homeless guy to set up camp in her yard. She leads a pretty closed-off existence and doesn't seem to want to open her home to others. As time wears on, however, Mrs. Curren has to start accepting other people into her home – Florence and her children move in because their home in Gugulethu isn't safe; Vercueil pretty much comes and goes as he pleases. At first, Mrs. Curren totally resents their company; she feels like they're all taking advantage of a sick and defenseless woman. As time goes on, though, she becomes more reconciled to the idea of having others living with her.
In fact, we see Mrs. Curren become a more sympathetic person in general as the novel progresses. This increasing sympathy is especially evident in her relationship with Vercueil. Over time, she stops seeing him as a parasite that takes advantage of her. Instead, she starts to regard him as a companion and guide; he's the person whom she trusts enough to ask to deliver her papers to her daughter.
Mrs. Curren's personal growth isn't always so positive, though. As the walls around her start to come down, she has to face some pretty scary realities. As a white South African, Mrs. Curren has been able to shield herself from the dark reality of Apartheid; she's continued on with her privileged lifestyle without too many disturbances. Nevertheless, the people moving in and out of her house come with a lot of baggage. Within a very short amount of time, Mrs. Curren witnesses several instances of police brutality and racial violence, including the deaths of Bheki and John, two young boys who both spend time in her home. Mrs. Curren's worldview continues to shift until the very last days of her life.Timeline