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By Nadine Gordimer
New York: Penquin Books, 1990
ISBN: 0-14 01. 5975 4 277 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2016

The setting of this gripping and beautifully written novel is South Africa during the period when the Blacks have not yet won any serious freedom or full citizenship, but are on the verge of winning it.

The center figures are Sonny, a school teacher and soon to be political activist and his family, Aila his wife, and their two children Baby and her younger brother Will. The two children are young teens as the story opens.

Sonny has a growing reputation in the resistance movement and is an excellent public speaker. However, he is never a central figure in the “movement,” but an extremely useful and talented orator for various events. He wishes he were more involved at the center of things, but is more the useful tool of the organization.

As the novel opens the young teen-age Will happens to see his father coming out of a theater with a white woman, and realizes this is clearly an affair in the making and not just two folks seeing a film. Thus begins his agony over the situation and his deep resentment of his father. Yet, he doesn’t want to expose this affair to his mother whom he loves very much and whom he believes would be devastated by his father’s affair.

Sonny has left his teaching position to become a social activist. “He had stayed the children’s hands when they picked up stones. But, words, too, are stones.”

He has become a sought-out speaker for the black resistance movement, but was fired from his school position. He became a full-time public speaker with some small side job, book-keeping, to live. The family eventually moves to Jonnesbury. They will be living in a white working class neighborhood where, of course, they will not be very welcomed.

Sonny soon spent some time (two years) in jail and after that he was in and out of the home doing his activist work. Yet he was always on the periphery of power within the movement, and at the same time a very useful orator and much sought after.

Will is simply obsessed with his father’s “woman.” She had often visited him in jail in her role with a Human Rights organization. Will simply hates the whole situation.

Sonny tried to keep his knowledge secret from his mother, but when his sister, Baby, cut her wrist Will learned that both mother and his sister knew, yet no one in the household would acknowledge the affair or Hannah Plowman’s existence. However that his mother and sister actually knew of the affair is not fully clear, but Will at least is convinced the do.

As time goes on Sonny is more and more resolved that his real love is Hannah and not his wife Aila, but he keeps up the pretense, though it is difficult. Their affair is mainly carried on in her tiny one room run down cottage on a local estate.

While she is still a late teen, it turns out that Baby is actually in the “movement” too and she went off to Lusaka, Zambia. Soon she has a child and Aila just can’t stand the separation and she gets a passport and goes to see Baby. From that period on Aila begins to commute more often to Zambia to be with Baby and her tiny child.

Sonny is torn with guilt and especially sees the difficult time Will is having so he starts to stay home all the time with son. Will doesn’t think his dad even knows him any longer. He doesn’t know, or at least Will doesn’t think he does, that he’s read many of the books in his father’s library. He just can’t figure out why he’s home all the time now that his mother is gone. He thinks perhaps his dad is in in trouble, but then, too, he wonders if his father is home so much not for his own reasons but for WILL’S sake.

Eventually there is a startling development when the police arrest Aila, who was always this quiet politically uninvolved mother, who just loved her husband and children. However, the authorities, searching their house because of Sonny’s activities found hidden munitions. It is Aila who claims the munitions, not Sonny. She claims some unknown “friends” asked her to allow the hiding of munitions.

Will is utterly shocked to discover that his mother was indeed doing very similar things as his father.

Eventually Aila is released on bail while her trial goes on and she has all of a sudden become a hero among revolutionaries. Will doesn’t know what to think.

Just at this time Hannah, Will’s lover and the source of so much trouble between Will and his father, has simply left the scene to take a new and higher job in this area of human rights and she is never or heard or seen again.

Much to the total shock of both Will and his father, Aila escapes, and is a fugitive on her own, and the father and son, now living at home together, have no idea where she is. Eventually they “hear” she is in Sweden, but the lives of father and son have now dramatically changed and not only are Sonny’s affair over, but so is his usefulness to the movement. Only Will’s suspicions and anger remain.

The telling of this very sad but informative tale is exquisite. The narration goes back and forth between the teen-aged son, Will, and an all-seeing narrator. We never really know if Will gets his part right, but since the narrator is unnamed and seemingly the voice of the author, there is the tendency of the reader to take that part of the novel as accurate history.

However, the very last two pages bring a startling revelation to the reader and one has to then sit and rethink the story from beginning to end.

This is a marvelously constructed and written novel, perhaps even more interesting because of the dualism of the telling – Will’s tale and the unnamed narrator’s version – and the conflicts between the two visions.

The novel was published just before Nadine Gordimer was given the Nobel Prize for Literature and in their announcement of the award the selection committee cited this novel as one of the key motivations for giving her the Nobel.

Bob Corbett


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