This beautiful novel aimed at upper primary children was an absolute joy to read. It’s set in post-apartheid Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and deftly explores a number of complex themes including Apartheid, the care system, class and ethnicity issues and ageing. The theme of Dementia could quite easily have been lost within the scope of the novel. However, Krone does such an excellent job of weaving her story together Dementia never feels like a tokenistic add on. It’s an integral part of the narrative throughout. The illness is written in such a way that young readers will encounter a very realistic, factually accurate depiction of Dementia without feeling threatened or fearful. This is a delicate balance to maintain in children’s and YA Dementia narratives and it’s testament to the skill of Krone’s storytelling that she maintains this balance throughout the novel.
Small Mercies centres around a young girl called Mercy who lives with her two eccentric, elderly foster aunts and their lodger in a ramshackle house on the edge of the town. Mercy is struggling to understand her family situation, the poverty she’s living with and the complex ethnic identity structures of South Africa as played out in her own classroom. She’s constantly worried that a Social Worker might appear and take her away from her beloved aunts. This anxiety intensifies when she realises they may lose their house and that her Aunt Flora’s increasing confusion is actually a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually neither Mercy nor her Aunt Mary are able to cope with Flora’s confusion, accidents and wanderings. They find a place for her in a residential care facility and Flora must come to terms with losing yet another parent figure.
Krone does a marvellous job of articulating Mercy’s complicated mix of emotions as she watches her foster family go through some radical and upsetting changes. I particularly loved the honesty with which Mercy describes her embarrassment over how Aunt Flora’s “strange” behaviour might appear to the other children in her school. Krone also writes extremely accurately about the way poverty can take an enormous toll on how a person living with Dementia is cared for. This little novel has a lot of heart. It speaks about the importance of community when it comes to care. It’s funny and wise and full of hope and there’s a brilliant, compelling story running throughout. I enjoyed it immensely and learned quite a bit about South African culture whilst reading it.
Small Mercies was published by Walker Books in 2020