March 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

In an emotionally astute portrait of South Africa infused with touches of magic realism, Mda reimagines the 1971 case of the ”Excelsior 19” — 14 black women and 5 white men whose trial for breaking anti-miscegenation laws sparked a national debate about apartheid. Niki, a black woman humiliated one too many times by her Afrikaner boss, seduces the boss’ husband. When she gives birth to a light-skinned, blue-eyed, almost-blond daughter, Niki is hauled off to jail with other mothers of ”babies that look grey at first glance, but have the colours of the rainbow if you look hard enough.” Mda’s radiant novel captures more truth in its rich exaggerations and mad distortions than a mere literal account ever could.

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