James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction Best Book (nominee)
In his early years, growing up on a Dutch farm in the deep interior of the southern African Cape, Cupido Cockroach became the greatest drinker, liar, fornicator and fighter of his region. Coming under the spell of a woman, the soap-boiler Anna, and particularly under the influence of the great Dr Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society, whose own early profligate life dramatically changed course after a tragedy in Holland inspired him to dedicate himself to the abused native peoples of Southern Africa, he is then made the first Khoi or 'Hottentot' missionary ordained at the Cape of Good Hope. Received into the fold of the Church, Cupido passionately turns against all his early beliefs. After being drawn into the fierce struggle between the missionaries and the Dutch colonists, he rises to some prominence and is appointed as missionary in a remote and arid region in the North-western Cape. But this also marks the beginning of his decline, as the Society abandons him to his fate. One by one, the members of his congregation disappear into the desert, so that in the end, abandoned even by his wife and children, he is left to preach to the stones and thorn trees and tortoises, returning to the dream-world of his people. In a heady mixture of comedy and tragedy, the real and the magical, and immersed in the ancient, earthy, African world of magic and dreams, Praying Mantis explores through the historical figure of Cupido Cockroach the origins of racial tension in the shadowlands between myth and history.
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