In Noah’s final preface, he remembers one Saturday, when he secretly eats a huge bowl of custard and jelly that is intended for a weeklong celebration for the whole family. That night, mosquitoes devour him, and he wakes up bloated from the dessert and itchy from the jelly. His mother tells him it’s time to go to church, and that Jesus would make him feel better. Trevor argues that “Jesus gives us medicine,” so taking medicine and staying home would be the best way to honor him.
As always, Patricia lets nothing stand between her family and church(es) on Sunday; and, as always, Trevor thinks of an excuse to get out of it (even though, this time, he certainly has sins to repent for). This final preface recalls the events of the first chapter, but also foreshadows the end of this chapter, when medicine and Jesus become decisive factors in Patricia’s life.
The chapter begins. After getting his makeover for the dance with Babiki, Trevor finally starts getting interest from girls, and he returns to the hair salon every week to make sure his cornrows stay in perfect condition. On Sundays, his mom gets dressed up for church and teases him for his own vanity. She is beautiful and confident, Trevor admits.
Trevor sees a parallel between himself, who dresses up for girls, and his mother, who dresses up for Jesus; this recalls his argument that God replaced husbands in Soweto, sustaining women spiritually when men are unavailable due to work or prison.
Patricia probably “broke more than a few hearts in her day,” but Trevor only ever knew of her being with his father and Abel. They meet Abel when bringing their Volkswagen to the repair shop. “Handsome, but [not] good-looking,” Abel is strong and charming, with a good sense of humor and an eagerness to help those in need. This “made his abuse even harder to deal with.” He is never a father figure for Trevor, just “mom’s cool friend.”
Trevor and Patricia are both radically independent; neither feels the need for an adult man to round out their family dynamic, and Patricia starts dating him simply because she likes him, not because she needs him. Of course, this contrasts with Abel’s own motivations for dating her—just like with people in the community, he needs to be needed and depended upon, which Patricia does not give him.
When Trevor’s mother announces that she is planning to marry Abel, Trevor immediately says it is a bad idea because “there’s just something not right about him.” His name reflects his dual personality: his English name is “the good son” from the Bible, but his Tsonga name, Ngisaveni, means “be afraid.” They get married anyway, and soon Patricia has another son, Andrew, when Trevor is nine years old. They visit Abel’s family in the tropical Tsonga homeland, and Trevor finds out that “Tsonga culture […] is extremely patriarchal.” Men do little besides work and drink; women do all the domestic tasks and literally bow when they meet men. Patricia mocks these customs by going over the top, which makes everyone uncomfortable. She later refuses to return.
Trevor’s gut feeling here foreshadows the gradual dissolution of Abel’s relationship with Patricia and the family, recalling his earlier statement that South Africans’ English manes are chosen for convenience, whereas their native names are self-fulfilling prophecies that represent their personality. He soon sees that Abel’s traditional Tsonga conceptions of gender are fundamentally incompatible with Patricia’s independence, and she is not afraid to point out how ridiculous she finds it that his family effectively treats women as servants.
After Andrew’s birth, Abel increasingly tries to “impose his ideas of what he thought his family should be,” although he seldom gets in Trevor’s way. He forces the dogs to start living in the yard and refuses to fix Patricia’s car, so that he becomes the family’s only means of transportation and so that Patricia cannot spend all Sunday at church (but she goes by minibus, anyway). Trevor can no longer see his father, either.
Abel begins acting out the standard gender roles of Tsonga culture, based on a fundamental belief that he owns his family and thus gets to decide what he wants to do with them. He isolates Patricia in order to consolidate her control over her, but since Trevor is not his biological son, he feels little connection to him.
Patricia makes Abel stop smoking weed when they get married, and he starts drinking instead, usually starting at work. When he does, his eyes get bloodshot, and he explodes randomly into violence. Once, he drives home drunk and falls asleep on the couch while making food—the house fills with smoke and nearly burns down, but Abel is “too drunk to care.” Patricia calls her mother Frances, insisting that “this man, he’s going to kill us one day,” but Abel hangs up her call. They get into an argument, and Abel attacks her, hitting her and knocking her down “for a good thirty seconds.” When she gets back up, Patricia keeps yelling at him, and he hits her again. She brings Trevor and Andrew to the police station.
Abel’s desire for control over the family contrasts with his complete lack of control over himself (or anything at all) when he is drunk, which becomes most of the time; he seems to have no empathy whatsoever for the family and uses escalating violence to control Patricia’s actions. As always, she refuses to live by other people’s rules, and so she has no interest in giving him a second chance or the control that he craves. In fact, she stands her ground on principle, and he attacks her because he is incapable of resolving conflicts, asserting his masculinity, or defining his relationship with her through words or principles. Unable to justify why she owes him complete control over her life, Abel resorts to brute force, which can be seen as a sort of moral cowardice.
However, the police tell Patricia to calm down and think over it before flat-out refusing to charge Abel, who soon shows up. The cops reassure him that everything will be fine, that they understand that “it happens,” and not to worry. Patricia takes Andrew and Trevor to Soweto, and a few weeks later, Abel comes to apologize. Frances encourages Patricia to give him another chance, and she agrees. For years, everything is fine at home.
Clearly, the South African police have little interest in protecting everyone equally. Even though they have harassed Trevor, demanding bribes and arresting him without solid evidence, when there is obvious proof of Abel’s assault they do nothing, even taking his side and treating him as the victim of a wife audacious enough to report abuse.
Abel is an excellent mechanic, and Patricia sincerely wants him to succeed. They buy the company Abel works for, realize it is in horrible debt, and eventually sell their house and start living out of the garage where the business is based. Trevor sleeps in cars—the most comfortable are German and American ones. At age 11, Trevor starts working there, too. The business and family keep losing money, though, and eventually they are reduced to eating worms. This is the unhappiest period of Trevor’s life, although he does not resent Abel or his mother for getting him into it.
One of the most tragic elements of Patricia’s relationship with Abel is that she sincerely invests in him, tries to save his business for him, and is perfectly capable of doing so, while he views her as a piece of property to be owned and controlled. Her trust in Abel even draws the family back into poverty, as they lose their Eden Park home to the “black tax.” Patricia and Abel’s realization about his company’s debts is also a version of this tax, since it shows how black business owners’ inability to learn the rules of the white capitalist economy during apartheid stifles them. On top of this, they start out centuries behind when they are finally allowed to participate in this economy at the end of apartheid, as Trevor discussed in his chapter on the “Cheese Boys.”
Trevor realizes the problem: Abel is buying auto parts on credit, with “a crazy markup,” and drinking any profits he made instead of paying off his debts, which just get increasingly worse. Patricia quits her job to run the business, which starts going better, but Abel begins resenting her for it and keeps drinking away the profits. Eventually, Patricia gives up and gets another secretary job, which gets them the house in Highlands North, just as Abel’s creditors take away his workshop.
Abel is more incensed to lose control of his business than he is to lose his profits; in a sense, he is so stuck on short-term projects and the appearance of control that he cannot act strategically in the long term. This also more fundamentally reflects the lack of knowledge and resources that Trevor sees as one of the main factors locking black South Africans into a cycle of poverty.
Unlike with Trevor, Patricia stops physically disciplining Andrew relatively early on. She learns this lesson from Trevor, who is never violent, even though his world is defined by violence; he recognizes that violence is pointless and love truly makes relationships function by letting people “create a new world” for one another.
Although Patricia’s corporal punishment taught Trevor valuable lessons, he seems to teach her that those lessons are transmissible without violence (and she likely worries about replicating the effects of Abel’s abuse). Trevor’s argument about the transformative potential of love is the central strand in his portrait of his relationship with his mother; she allowed him to succeed by opening worlds that he was not supposed to access, and of course her kind of mutual world-making love stands in opposition to Abel’s controlling, world-restricting, violent conception of love.
Just as Patricia stops physically disciplining the children, Abel starts hitting them instead. This first happens to Trevor in the sixth grade. He gets caught forging his mother’s signature on a form for school—at home, she does not care, but Abel takes him into a closet and starts hitting him repeatedly. Trevor is terrified, more than any other time in his life—it feels like rage, not discipline. Trevor manages to escape, then runs out of the house—but Abel chases him, and he continues running until he is “three neighborhoods away.” From then on, Trevor avoids Abel as much as possible at home, but Abel still manages to hit him on occasion. On the other hand, Abel loves and respects Andrew, his firstborn and the only person in the house who is not afraid of his father.
Abel’s attacks give Trevor a small taste of the daily terror his mother must endure—but courageously confronts for years, since she is not lucky enough to simply isolate herself from him. Further demonstrating how Abel views family as property, he sees children as nothing more than extensions of their fathers: he treats Andrew well because Andrew is his own son and effectively does not consider Trevor part of the family because Trevor is Robert’s. Patricia’s parental role plays no part in this equation of male “ownership.”
After the business fails, Patricia legally divorces Abel in order to save her credit, but they stay together. Abel continues fixing cars, now in the yard, and drinking away all his profits; Patricia gets a better position at her real estate company and ends up paying for everything. Her independence makes Abel furious, and he hits her again. The adult Trevor interjects that he “can’t recall the details” because there were so many more incidents just like this one, but he does remember that the police again blew it off. Every time this happens, Patricia tells Trevor to pray.
At a certain point, Patricia realizes that Abel poses a threat to her financial future even if she leaves, not to mention the threat he poses to her physical safety; she takes on the traditional male role instead of the female one, and Abel blames her even though she is merely filling in to cover for his own failures. So she is in a double bind: either she lets her family starve (because Abel cannot pay the bills) or she gets blamed for keeping the family afloat. Her resort to prayer suggests that she feels there is nothing more she can do to resolve the situation.
Abel is unrecognizable when drunk, nothing like his usual self—he once pees on Trevor’s floor, thinking he is in the bathroom, and often kicks Trevor out of bed, thinking Trevor’s bed is his own. He also beats his buddies who work at the shop (and drink after work) with him, and he kicks Fufi all the time, which are both warning signs for the family, indications that his anger is flaring up. Trevor later learns that, besides being deaf, Fufi had “some condition” that prevented her from feeling pain—she always gives Abel second chances, but so does everyone else, because he is “likable and charming” and part of the family. The beatings are infrequent, every few years, but just often enough for everyone to remember that it might happen again.
Abel is spiraling out of control in even more domains of his life, as evidenced particularly by his abuse of his workers. While his violence is an attempt to regain control over others, it instead pushes others away, making it even harder for him to control them and frustrating him even further; violence is a self-perpetuating cycle, much like the historical cycles of violent ethnic and racial hierarchy in South Africa among the Dutch, British, coloreds, and various African indigenous groups that Trevor has summarized throughout the book. Whereas Abel cannot discern love from violence, Trevor has already shown that they are opposites, since violence perpetuates the condition of power asymmetry (even if it occasionally changes who is in power) while love allows parties to insist on equality and mutual interest, so thereby “create a new world.”
One day after school, Trevor’s mom tells him that Abel has bought a gun because “he thinks he’s the policeman of the world.” Trevor soon moves out, since he’s grown as big as Abel, who increasingly hates him and sees him as a reminder of Patricia’s old relationship with Robert. Soon, Patricia and Abel move to separate bedrooms, and Trevor is counting the years until Andrew turns 18—and then Patricia gets pregnant and gives birth to Isaac nine months later.
Abel’s gun—which he is definitely willing to use—suggests that he is falling deeper into his cycle of violence, trying to control the entire world like a “policeman” to cope with his accelerating loss of control over himself. Still unable to see Trevor as anything more than a symbol of the fact that Patricia has not always been “his,” Abel’s masculinity becomes so fragile that he quite literally cannot stand to have Trevor around the house.
Trevor almost entirely stops visiting, but one day when he does, there are police cars out front. Abel has hit Patricia with a bicycle—but the cops are friends of his, and again they let him off. Trevor confronts him, and he apologizes but blames Patricia and insists that he has to show his workers that he can “control [his] wife.” Patricia has a shack built in the backyard and moves into it, both for her protection and as a way of forcing Abel to answer to the world.
The police continue to take Abel’s side, but Patricia insists on continuing to call them for the same reasons she builds the shack: because they may eventually help, and because it allows her to make a point that Abel’s actions are wrong. Yet Abel still sees Patricia’s independence as a sign of his own weakness, although it remains unclear why, given that independence, she is still with him after all this abuse.
Trevor is confused and frustrated that his mother doesn’t “just leave,” but he remarks that at this time he has not even had a girlfriend and has no idea how relationships work and how “sex and hatred and fear can intertwine.” He insists that he cannot be part of “this dysfunctional thing” and cuts off contact with the family; he blames his mother for choosing to stay, just as she has taught him that people are always and solely responsible for their choices. But he does not understand the social context around domestic violence, either—it is normal in South Africa, and women risk ostracism if they leave men. During this last conversation, Patricia states matter-of-factly that “if I leave he’ll kill us.” Trevor never brings it up again.
In retrospect, Trevor realizes that he was naïve about both relationships and cultural expectations at the time due to his youth and inexperience; this is also, luckily, because his main loving relationship (that with his mother) has been so unconditionally enriching and positive. In hindsight, Trevor now sees why his mother made the decision she did: she was entirely serious about the threat Abel posed and focused more on her safety than her independence. And the fact that domestic violence remains a cultural norm shows how patriarchy remains pervasive after apartheid, intersecting with racial, ethnic, and cultural prejudice; there is an entire distinctive women’s experience of colonialism and apartheid that Trevor can only catch glimpses of (for instance, through realizing this cultural norm, or through his moment of empathy with Babiki at prom).
Patricia eventually does leave, although Trevor is already deep into his career, living with Mlungisi, and out of touch with the family. She marries someone else and moves into another house in Highlands North; a few years later, Trevor gets a phone call from his mom’s number on a Sunday morning. It is Andrew, reporting that “mom’s been shot.” Trevor immediately knows who did it and rushes to the hospital with Mlungisi. On the way, he calls Andrew again. Andrew explains what happened: when the family got home from church, Abel was waiting with his gun; he shot Patricia in the leg, and then in the head. Trevor breaks down in the car, crying like never before, in an absolute “expression of raw pain.” When he arrives at the hospital, Andrew is covered in blood and breaks down, too.
Patricia’s prediction—and Trevor’s worst fear—tragically comes true. His “raw pain” encompasses various kinds of loss: the loss of his mother’s freedom from Abel, regret at temporarily distancing himself from the family, and of course most of all the loss of his main “teammate,” teacher, and inspiration in life. Trevor respects his mother more than anyone else in the world and thinks that she is the last person in the world who would deserve such a fate, not only because she was an incredible mother but also because of her devotion to God and because she has already overcome so much during and after apartheid, thanks solely to her own fearlessness.
Inside, Patricia is covered in blood on a gurney with a giant hole through her face. Miraculously, she is awake, and she tells Trevor, “it’s okay, baby. I’m fine.” She tells Trevor to go to Andrew, and he does.
Incredibly, even despite her injuries, Patricia continues to put Trevor’s needs first and worries more about his sanity than her own grave condition.
Andrew tells Trevor the story in more detail: Abel drunkenly insisted that he would kill the whole family, which had “stolen [his] life” and “taken everything away from [him].” Andrew tried to calm him down, and his father threatened to shoot him first. Thinking back to these events, Trevor feels that Andrew must have dealt with a far deeper pain, since his father shot his mother, and he has to reconcile this with his love for them both. Isaac is crying and confused; Abel starts firing randomly, and Patricia jumps toward him in an effort to protect the rest of her family, who manage to run away. Abel tries to shoot her in the head, but his gun misfires. As she tries to drive away, however, he shoots her from behind the car. Andrew jumps in the car and drives to the hospital.
Patricia is also astonishingly selfless during Abel’s attack, throwing herself in front of her family even though she certainly knows that she is the primary target anyway. He continues to believe that he had an inalienable right to own his family, which Patricia has “taken […] away” by simply pursuing her own freedom. (According to this twisted logic, if the family is “his,” he also has the right to destroy it.) While Isaac is still very young, Andrew is indubitably in the hardest position, especially since he spent so many years trying to stop his father’s violence and genuinely loving him despite it.
Andrew does not know what has happened to Abel. Trevor decides to call him, and he picks up. Trevor yells that he “killed my mom!” and Abel says, “if I could find you, I would kill you as well” before hanging up. Trevor is frightened and furious.
Unlike after his previous episodes of violent abuse, Abel shows no signs of remorse but also remains emotionally level; his attempt to kill Patricia is not a crime of passion but rather one of cold, calculated vengeance, because he believes he has been denied his due (an obedient family). Yet again, he conceives love as a legalistic duty rather than an interpersonal feeling, and so has no sense that his abuse would make it justifiable for Patricia to leave him (despite seemingly recognizing and apologizing for his mistakes every time).
A nurse comes out and reveals that Trevor’s mother does not have health insurance, which means they have to send her back out to a state hospital. Trevor insists that he will pay and the nurse tells him it could cost him hundreds of thousands, or millions, and leave him in debt for the rest of his life. Trevor pauses in shock, wondering what his mother would do, and what would happen if he pays the money and she dies anyway. He will have to take care of his family and could “get trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence” that he was supposed to break the family out of. But he insists and gives the nurse the card.
Like in the United States and much of the developing world, good medical care is a privilege reserved for the rich in South Africa; paying his mother’s bills is a version of the “black tax” that could threaten to leave him with neither money nor Patricia. But the fact that he considers what she would do shows how successfully she has imprinted her moral values in him; he only ever considers not paying because he knows how much his freedom matters to her.
A few hours, the doctor comes out and says that, even though he hates the word “miracle,” it is the only way to describe what happened to Patricia. The bullet that went through her head managed to miss her brain, eye socket, and “every major vein, artery, and nerve.” She is stable and going to be fine, and the doctor tells the family to go home for some rest. She will ultimately only have to spend four days in the hospital.
Astonishingly, Patricia emerges from the shooting almost unscathed; the bullet’s path is so improbable that even the doctor cannot think of a rational explanation. Trevor’s decision to pay her fees and Patricia’s life’s worth of prayers clearly seem to have been rewarded.
The next morning, Trevor visits Patricia, who seems “frail and weak.” He wonders why he did not kill Abel himself years before and feels “angry at God” for letting this happen to Patricia despite her devotion to religion. Patricia wakes up, and Trevor starts crying. She tells him not to, and that he should “look on the bright side.” There is no bright side, he insists. But “of course there is,” she replies, for “now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family.” They both break out into laughter, “the way [they] always did” as a team.
Patricia’s response to nearly dying is almost inhumanly optimistic and shows that her resilience is boundless: through humor, she takes one of the worst imaginable human experiences in stride, and the last chapter ends just like the first one, with her and Trevor laughing their way out of a situation that would terrorize almost anyone else.
In a brief afterword, Noah explains that the family later manages to “piece the whole story together.” After shooting Patricia, Abel takes his frightened four-year-old son Isaac to a family friend’s house. On the way, he explains that he is planning to kill himself. Abel spends the rest of the day visiting relatives, explaining what he has done and what he is planning to do. But one cousin tells him to “man up” and turn himself in, and he agrees.
Even more frightening than Abel’s cold-blooded murder attempt is the fact that he did not seem to be in another one of his out-of-control drunken rages; rather, he had a concrete plan, acted in accord with the most extreme imaginable version of possessive love, and left the situation with a level head and his son. It is difficult to underestimate how traumatizing this must be for Isaac, who understands what he has just seen and yet seems too young to fully process its implications and emotional consequences for his relationships with his parents.
Astonishingly, Abel manages to get bail and is free again in a month. Because none of the previous calls resulted in charges, he has a clean criminal record. He gets a lawyer and insists that his children need him, then pleads guilty to attempted murder and gets three years of probation—no prison time. He still has partial custody of Andrew and Isaac and is “walking around Johannesburg today, completely free,” still living in the same neighborhood near Patricia.
Abel’s fate shows how deeply flawed South Africa’s justice system continues to be after apartheid. It sharply contrasts with those of the people Trevor met in jail, who were invariably charged with much more minor crimes; the Tsonga man who shoplifted video games to feed his family probably received a harsher sentence than Abel, who shot his ex-wife in the head out of spite. Unfortunately, this is unsurprising given how lightly the police took all of Patricia’s earlier domestic violence calls; clearly, those in the legal system are more interested in personal gain and social control than justice.
And then there is Patricia’s side of the story. When she is on the ground and Abel is pointing the gun at her, she prays—and, inexplicably, the gun misfires four times. The police later find the four misfired bullets, but cannot explain how Abel’s gun could have done what it did.
Patricia appears to have achieved another miracle through prayer: not only did she take a bullet to the head and survive nearly unscathed, but Abel’s gun misfires precisely when he is preparing to murder her. With the experts unable to explain either of these, her devotion finally appears to have been repaid.
The hospital bill is 50,000 rand, but Trevor still tells his mother he “can’t believe you didn’t have health insurance.” She insists that she has God, and he admits that “for once I cannot argue with you.” But Jesus did not pay the hospital bill, Trevor jokes. Patricia replies, “but He blessed me with the son who did.”
The hospital bill seems like a third miracle: while the cost of Patricia’s treatment initially threatened to bankrupt the family, undo all of Trevor’s economic progress, and send them back into poverty, ultimately it is far less than the nurse warned. The book closes with a characteristic exchange between Trevor and Patricia—through religion and humor, she always manages to see the bright side.