The Smell of Apples is a novel set in South Africa in the 1970s. The story is narrated by eleven-year-old Marnus Erasmus who is also the protagonist. Marnus is the son of a well-respected military hero who is regarded as a future member of the Cabinet, and so Marnus and his older sister, Ilse, are raised to have great expectations of themselves. Through Marnus' eyes the reader sees the insidious way in which this particular generation of South African youngsters was brainwashed into thinking that not only were the black Africans less than the whites but also that they were a different species altogether. The novel cleverly shows how essentially decent people perpetuate hate on behalf of their government whilst simultaneously believing that they are doing the best for their children and their nation by protecting both from savages.
The novel deals with apartheid, with the threat of war in neighboring nations and also touches on the legitimate danger that the white Africans were in from guerrilla armies in those countries. It touches on the issue of women's oppression, of a global fear of communism and of child sexual abuse all told by a child who does not really understand the larger picture but whose view of the world is already horribly skewed by the words and the actions around him. It is also a book about a childhood spent enjoying the wonders of nature and the rough-and-tumble of being a child in an age before video games and the Internet, and of a landscape so beautiful and powerful that it is almost a character in its own right.
Interspersed with the narration of the young Marnus are passages by Marnus, fifteen years later, as he fights in another country's war in Angola against a communist army that seems by the end of the novel to be overpowering Marnus and his troops. Although the novel takes place in Africa and is effectively about another world, the story also resonates with America in that time period as American youth was also sent to another country to fight another country's war against communists.
This novel was Mark Behr's first. When it was first published in his native South Africa in 1995, it was hailed as a modern classic. It went on to be a global best-seller .