This is my first experience with Gordimer, and sadly I didn’t really push to read any of her writing until news of her death. We picked July’s People as the group read for February in the F Word group as a belated memorial for Gordimer, and while it was a short selection (160 pages in my edition) it certainly wasn’t a quick and breezy read. Really, though, this should have been obvious as quick and breezy reads rarely win the NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE…
July’s People is set in South Africa (where Gordimer is from) during a fictional civil war in which the black population has overthrown the whites. The reflection of the anti-apartheid era in this fictional retelling had this book banned in South Africa following it’s publication in 1981. The story is about Bamford and Maureen Smales, a white middle-class couple with 3 small children who flee their home under the threat of violence. Their black servant of the last 15 years, July, transfers them from their comfortable suburban home to his rural village hiding in their yellow bakkie in order to protect them. The shock of leaving their home filled with modern conveniences for a series of huts with no electricity is a lot to take for the Smales, particularly Maureen, a transition they were wholly unprepared for which was made even more evident when Gordimer describes the items they packed; laundry supplies and an electric car track for the children, all of which became completely useless in their new environment. There is a total reversal of the master/servant dynamic as the family now relies on July to provide their food, shelter and safety. The Smales considered themselves liberal and hoped for a peaceful outcome for the racial struggle in Johannesburg, but find their suspicions of July and his black community heightened during the time they spend in the village. There is conflict between Maureen and July regarding his time as a servant in their home prompted by his telling Maureen not to work the fields with the black women. July holds the keys to the bakkie which puts him in control of the Smales’ only form of transportation, despite the fact that they have nowhere they can go. He also knows of the gun they have brought with them to the village which causes yet more tension.
This was a tricky read. While clearly very important and beautifully executed, I struggled at times with determining who was speaking, or from who’s POV the words were coming. This was minor and didn’t impact my understanding of the story overall, but tripped me up a bit. The ending is very ambiguous which left it open to much interpretation, and I have some questions! Overall it was a powerful novel, very deserving of it’s Nobel Prize. I’m looking forward to trying more Gordimer in the future.