The Breadwinners by Jan Hurst-Nicholson

The Breadwinners: A Family Saga - Jan Hurst-Nicholson

Review by fellow author and online acquaintance therefore unrated


Jan Hurst-Nicholson's The Breadwinners is a family saga set among three baking dynasties in and around Durban, South Africa. The saga extends from the mid-Twenties through to the Sixties (or maybe the Seventies) and follows that timeline with few jumps forward. This results in a text that rushes through the ambitious timeline and leaves little time for development. As a consequence you learn a lot about who had a baby and who married whom, but there is disappointingly little detail about the evolving social context outside the narrow confines of the Durban baking industry. That social context involved the rise of the National Party and the creation of the apartheid system yet the only politics mentioned are about South Africa's limited role in World War Two.


The novel is billed as a family saga and it reads like a business-centred soap opera for which there is a a considerable market. It would been improved if it had been written as a series of novels or if some of the timeline was omitted, because it is all a bit rushed. It will not appeal so much to readers of historical fiction as the historical context (aside from World War Two) is restricted to developments in the baking industry. This contrast between a family-focused saga and historical fiction is starkest when the cast of characters is considered: they are all white. There are black servants and bakery workers but they have few lines to utter in this drama that includes the period of the Sharpeville Massacre.


This novel will appeal most to those who are comfortable reading a story about South Africa told from a purely white perspective and who relish details about pregnancies and family squabbles. If you are seeking political comment or enlightenment about the history of South Africa in the mid-Twentieth Century you should look elsewhere. Those readers who relish business-centred soap operas may find this to be their cup of (redbush) tea, but would probably prefer the baked goods to come with a more substantial filling than the over-ambitious timeline allows for.


© Mercia McMahon 2014