A question of Power by Bessie Head

Your mother was insane. If you’re not careful you’ll get insane just like your mother. 

Not only Elizabeth, the protagonist of A Question of Power is getting insane. I felt a maddening sensation myself while I was attempting to distinguish between reality and illusion while reading.

In this semi-biographical novel Bessie Head follows the gradual breakdown of Elizabeth – the child of a white woman of a position and a black servant in South Africa. Similarly to Head, Elizabeth’s mother is mentally ill and unable to take care of her chid. After a series of foster homes and an unfortunate relationship with a man, Elizabeth is driven away from Apartheid torn South Africa. Together with her son, she takes refugee in the small village of Motabeng in Botswana, hoping to build a different life for herself.

However, Elizabeth’s mixed race doesn’t get accepted neither in South Africa nor in her newly adopted country. She remains isolated, misunderstood and unhappy. Trying to make sense of gender and racial issues, Elizabeth’s sanity slowly deteriorates. As she loses her job and her fragile position in the village’s society. the woman becomes more and more entangled into her inner demons. Structured in two parts, A Question of Power follows the torture two illusionary men impose on Elizabeth. Sello (widely regarded as God) subjects her to the atrocity of human nature, while Dan (the Devil) imposes on her sexual harassment and violence. As Elizabeth is attempting to distinguish between reality and imagination, so was I.

I must admit I hated the novel for the better part of it. I was deeply confused – even more confused than the protagonist. I was angry – angry I couldn’t make any sense of it. I was bored – bored because of having to read episodes that have nothing in common with each other. I was enraged – enraged waiting for something logical to occur. And I was wrong – deeply wrong because finally I realized that this is the only sane way insanity should be portrayed.

Bessie Head (born in South Africa but widely considered Botswana’s most influential writer) herself suffered from several mental breakdowns. Drawing on her experience, the author brilliantly describes what happens in the confused mind of an insane person. And who better to do that, than someone who has actually experienced it. The thing with mental illnesses (any mental illnesses!) is that they are virtually impossible to describe. You have either suffered from them and you know what it is about or you never stand the change to even closely coming to the suffering they impose. I learned the hard way to appreciate A Question of Power. It was confusing, it didn’t make sense, it jumped easily from reality to dreams and back, but after all – isn’t this exactly what mental illness is all about?

Some novels are not at all what you expect them to be or what you are prepared for – I learned that these past two months. Elizabeth’s journey through madness is a journey for knowledge and a question of power. The protagonist is attempting to understand the complicated social and political changes taking place in the African continent and to adapt herself to them – her race and gender might not be ideal but they are all she has been dealt with in this life and she must accept them. And finally, the power lays not with Sello, not with Dan, but with Elizabeth herself. Head masterfully portrays a never-ending battle with mental illness in a world, which mistreats the different. A Question of Power is simply a novel one should give a chance to. And a novel one should definitely read through the perspective of the author and of the setting. I am proud and happy I finished it, and even more proud and happy I didn’t throw it away – simply because it was different, maddening, illogical, strange, and at times outrageous. Something many people should learn to do – not only with books but with other people as well.

Favourite quotes: 

A man might laugh at intense suffering only if the evil that tortured him became irrelevant and if obsessive love, which was also one of his evils, became irrelevant too.

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But a person inevitably becomes a replica of the inner demons he battles with.

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‘What would you do if you were both God and Satan at the same time?’…’I hope I’d have the courage to admit it to myself’

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When someone knows they are failing in every way, they still keep up the routine, filling in the gaps and blanks with frantic efforts to regain a health and control that aren’t there.