It’s post-democratic South Africa, President Jacob Zuma is in power, and Nadine Gordimer’s 15th novel is reasonably hot off the presses in terms of topicality. Here is South Africa coping with extremes of affluence and poverty still, despite the passing of the apartheid era.
Steve, the white son of a Jewish mother and a Christian father is living with Jabulile, Jabu for short. Their liaison is acceptable now, but not so long ago South Africa forbade such inter-racial relationships. In short, they have defied much to earn the easy intimacy and domestic security they now know.
Steve used to make explosives for the ANC, but now teaches science in university in the unspecified South African city. The couple met in Swaziland, where Jabu had been sent by her father to be educated. As their lives improve materially, they leave their rented flat in the city and move to the suburbs (simply called Suburbs throughout).
Steve becomes a lecturer at a university, Jabu re-trains to become a lawyer. Jabu gives birth to a daughter and they are blesssed with a second child, a boy. Among their social circle, they endlessly discuss everything that happens in the public realm.
Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991 and in her novels, short stories, and essays has always been passionately engaged with her native country. She has also been a tireless campaigner - two years ago, at the age of 86 she was publicily criticising what she saw as attempts by the South African government to muzzle the media.
The author knows South Africa in acute detail, and is one of the very few, apart from JM Coetzee (he no longer lives there) who has been able to explain the place to outsiders, through stories.
There is less of a dramatic tale here than in say, an early novel like The Conservationist, which won the Booker prize in 1972, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton's novel, Holiday.
Gordimer's style has evolved significantly in the 40 years since the decidely spare but mesmerisng The Conservationist. There is far less compelling narrative hook here, and some readers have been perplexed and frankly put off by the welter of ideas that are teased out in long discussions. But if you wish to understand South Africa today, this book is well worth the effort.