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“A compelling memoir that speaks to our soil and society” – Danielle Bowler reviews Sara-Jayne King’s Killing Karoline for the Mail & Guardian

Killing Karoline deals with important topical issues relating to adoption, identity, race, mental health and addiction.

Born Karoline King in 1980 in Johannesburg South Africa, Sara-Jayne (as she will later be called by her adoptive parents) is the result of an affair, illegal under apartheid’s Immorality Act, between a white British woman and a black South African man. Her story reveals the shocking lie created to cover up the forbidden relationship, and the hurried overseas adoption of the illegitimate baby, born during one of history’s most inhumane and destructive regimes.

Killing Karoline follows the journey of the baby girl (categorised as ‘white’ under South Africa’s race classification system) who is raised in a leafy, middle-class corner of the South of England by a white couple. It takes the reader through her formative years, a difficult adolescence and into adulthood, as Sara-Jayne (Karoline) seeks to discover who she is and where she came from.

Plagued by questions surrounding her own identity and unable to ‘fit in’ Sara-Jayne begins to turn on herself. She eventually returns to South Africa, after 26 years, to face her demons. There she is forced to face issues of identity, race, rejection and belonging beyond that which she could ever have imagined. She must also face her birth family, who in turn must confront what happens when the baby you kill off at a mere six weeks old returns from the dead.

Sara-Jayne King is a mixed-race South African/British journalist and radio presenter whose career spans over a decade and has taken her across the globe in search of remarkable stories and fascinating characters. While studying for an LLB degree in the UK, Sara-Jayne realised her passion lay elsewhere and, after graduating, she went on to complete a Master’s in Journalism in 2004. Her career began as a junior journalist in local radio in London and since then has included roles in the Middle East and Africa, most recently as a senior editor for news channel eNCA and presenter for Primedia’s talk radio station Cape Talk.

Read Danielle Bowler’s rave review of King’s memoir, as published in the Mail & Guardian:

Shame.

A word that is woven into the fabric of South Africa, stealthily slipping into our everyday language.

See a cute puppy? “Shame.” Tell a friend you had a bad day? “Shame.”

Someone stressing you out? “Ooh shame! Do they even know me!”

This strange, slippery word has, like “sorry”, taken on multiple meanings that are neatly folded into its letters.

“Shame”, we utter casually.

I wonder why.

The word has become a signature of our South African vernacular: dextrous, fluid and multitextured. But it reverberated differently as I read Sara-Jayne King’s remarkable memoir, Killing Karoline. Here, shame sprawls out in multiple directions: touching South African history, family connections, internalised emotions and tangential echoes that reflect my own experience of navigating the world as a coloured person.

My fascination with shame’s dimensions began while reading academic Zimitri Erasmus’s paper, ‘Shame and the Case of the Coloured’. She writes about how the myth of racial purity in strictly defined black and white identities created a fear of “racial mixing”. This came to be known as miscegenation, which, as author JM Coetzee writes, has connotations of “blood, flaw, taint and degeneration”.

There are multiple sites of shame for Erasmus too: “Shame for our origins of slavery, shame for the miscegenation, shame, as colonial racism became instituted, for being black.”

Of the multiple use of the word in South Africa, she writes: “It is no coincidence that the word ‘shame’ has been reduced to an utterance of tenderness, sympathy or empathy so that we would exclaim ‘shame’ on seeing a baby or a beggar, whilst the meaning of disgrace has been excised in common usage.”

Although we can deny and reject this imposed shame, which claims agency over ourselves and our bodies, it marks us in varied and inescapable ways. Reclaiming ourselves is, therefore, a radical act.

Killing Karoline, a novel rooted in such reclamation, unfolds a personal history that cuts the reader to the core. It’s a narrative that is both shocking and subtly unsurprising, given the race politics in our country.

Karoline’s story begins with a crime: a white woman’s affair with a black man during apartheid. As Kris falls pregnant, hoping the baby is her white husband Ken’s child, she remains silent about her transgression. When the baby is born, she is declared white — a box ticked atop a racial hierarchy, a safety net that would serve to keep a family intact and a secret safe — if only for a while.

A few weeks later, however, it becomes clear that the baby is not white and, with this, an apartheid sin morphs into an unthinkable evil. Kris eventually spills the secret and, alongside Ken, they spin a story of sickness, for which the baby requires treatment in London. They take her abroad and give her up for adoption, telling everyone in South Africa that she has died.

They kill Karoline. In another country, she becomes Sara-Jayne. Same, different and forever altered.

There are books that seep into your skin: you root for some characters, despise others and cling to the story as pages turn and words connect with some part of you, of your story or sense of humanity. Killing Karoline is one of these books. With vulnerability, honesty and openness, Sara-Jayne King deftly crafts a personal narrative into a compelling memoir that speaks to our soil and society, and resonates beyond it.

Continue reading Bowler’s review here.

Killing Karoline

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