I have read my first title for the Around the World Reading Challenge. The first continent I will visit is Africa, and here’s my review:
I chose July’s People by Nadine Gordimer for my African read for several reasons: Gordimer is an author I have been meaning to read for some time; she has won the Booker Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature; and I have heard many excellent reviews of her work. I chose this particular novel after hearing it discussed on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read.
The novel finds the Smales family – Bam, Maureen and their three children – forced to flee their home in Johannesburg due to riots, and seek refuge with their black servant:
“July’s home was not a village but a habitation of mud houses occupied only by members of his extended family.”
July puts them up in his mother’s house, much to his family’s disgust, and the Smales soon overstay their welcome. Tensions rise on all sides: from the Smales’ changing relationship with July; to the wider community; and the relationship between Bam and Maureen also suffers as the situation estranges them from one another. Only the children seem not to mind their new way of life, finding an acceptance within the community that the adults never receive and quickly adapting to their changed circumstances:
“Victor is seen to clap his hands, sticky with mealie-pap, softly, gravely together and bob obeisance, receiving the gift with cupped palms.”
The tension between the characters is set against the backdrop of political unrest and life in the African bush. Gordimer compares July’s village and its mud huts to a safari holiday the Smales have taken, only this is real thing – they are no longer pretending to be stranded in the bush. The landscape threatens to overwhelm them all, but Maureen in particular is affected by it:
“She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone’s breath fills a balloon’s shape.”
The bush plays tricks with them as they become more and more paranoid. When July takes the car for the day they are convinced that he will not return:
“She watched the bush; her scale pathetic, a cat at a mouse-hole, before that immensity.”
The novel deals with so much more than survival in the bush though, and subtlety exploits the roles of master and servant as the Smales are forced to become increasingly reliant on July in a world where they are helpless.
“Us and them. What he’s really asking about: an explosion of roles, that’s what the blowing up of the Union Buildings and the burning of master bedrooms is.”
To an extent, all of the characters experience a change in roles – husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant – as the bush upends all of their preconceptions of one another and leaves Bam and Maureen feeling helpless.
July’s People is a beautifully written book which operates on many levels. For me the novel’s strength lay in the wonderful depiction of the African bush and the day to day lives of the people who lived there, where on the surface nothing much seemed to happen but which underneath was bubbling with life.