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July's People by Nadine Gordimer

July's People - Nadine Gordimer

This is a brilliantly-written novella, though the style takes a little getting used to. The writing is densely packed with meaning but at the same time quite spare; every word and its placement counts.

July’s People was first published in 1981, during the time of apartheid and unrest in South Africa, and it posited a violent near future for the country – one that did not, in the end, come to pass, but that might have under slightly different circumstances. A liberal white couple and their three young children flee the city to take refuge with their longtime servant, July, in his village in the bush. This book captures the subtle shift in the balance of power between the Smales and July, as the middle-class white family tries to adapt to subsistence life and the expectations and illusions of apartheid society break down.

This is a story that runs narrow but deep: but for a few flashbacks from Maureen Smales, it takes place entirely in the tiny village over the span of a few weeks, with a cast consisting only of the principals and a few villagers, yet it covers more ground than many a longer book. It is packed with vivid imagery, so that the reader can practically see, smell, and touch each location. And the characters are delineated with equal precision, entirely real and complex.

My reservation about the book is its abrupt ending, an ambiguous cliffhanger that doesn’t quite bring the plot arc to a close. I suspect such an open-ended finale carried more weight in 1981 (when its readers had to decide what direction to take their country) than it does 35 years later.

At any rate, this is an excellent piece of literature that I would certainly recommend. Do be aware that it provides more intellectual enjoyment than easy entertainment, but readers seeking the former will be richly rewarded.