Toloki, the main protagonist in this narrative is a professional mourner, a last option for the man whose life is not quite the piece of cake in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. For Toloki, in a society where death is everywhere in post apartheid south Africa, he seems to come to terms with it in a peculiar way and one of its kind, to make funerals decent with his well practiced show of emotion, so much so that he comes for hire at funerals.
He is said to create an aura of sorrow and dignity that has fast disappeared in the modern South Africa where death is an everyday occurrence, no longer the important social ceremony that funerals would command when it was rarer back in the days.
For him it is quite simple - he attends funerals in the townships, dressed with dignity in a threadbare suit, cape, and battered top hat, to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city’s crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. One such occasion, the narrative begins from Christmas to New Years Eve when Toloki’s life takes a dramatic turn through the narrative uses the opportunity to revisit the past and make it relevant to the present.
On Christmas day Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village and the mother of the young boy at whose funeral he has gone to practice his trade. Together they help each other to heal the past.
In that past, Noria was a bewitching child, and it was especially Toloki’s dad, Jwara, who was under her spell so that when she sang for him he was inspired, and created fantastic small figures.
He would bribe and praise her, but as she grew older she found that she could get more interesting rewards from men closer to her own age. Without her, Jwara was sullen and could not create -- and he took much of his frustration out on his ugly son, Toloki.
Toloki eventually ran away from home, finding some success along the way and then in the city.
By now, however, he was reduced to being homeless, keeping his belongings in a cart by the beach. It was a lifestyle that suited him: he wasn’t particularly ambitious and he got by well enough.
Noria married badly and had a child who died horribly, as would the next one. Her circumstances by now are also poor but she had become a generous soul, and made do with her lot.
Violence touches almost everyone, and some of it is truly shocking. Yet, helped by the fact that Toloki and Noria are almost relentlessly optimistic, the book is also surprisingly upbeat.
Life is not easy, heart-breaking tragedy common, but still the two of them are able to look forward and find some joy in small things. Mda’s succeeds in portraying the horror of death which fills the book without leaving the book damp with sorrow.