47. ‘July’s People’ by Nadine Gordimer

Where has the year gone? If I’m going to hit my goal of reading 50 books by the end of the year, I need to make a final push. Also, I was hoping that half of my reads would be from the 1001 list, so I chose July’s People in the hopes that I would learn more about a certain period of history. 

I decided it was time to expaImage result for july's peoplend my horizons, so I selected this little novel set during the apartheid rule in South Africa. Published in 1981, July’s People imagines what would happen if South Africans staged a violent uprising against their white minority rulers. Although I was confused in some parts, I did enjoy this novel and felt it ended way too abruptly. I will expand on my issues shortly. The novel centers on Maureen and Bam Smales, an “enlightened” white liberal couple who together with their three children are rescued from the violent chaos by July, their black house boy for the past 15 years. July takes them to stay with his family, leading to an interesting examination of class differentiation and power.

July takes his former masters to his village driving their yellow truck, which Bam purchased as a present for himself for his fortieth birthday. Known as a bakkie, this type of vehicle is a status symbol for wealthy white South Africans primarily used a a sporting vehicle. I loved how the truck was used as a representation of the power shift between the races. Whoever has the keys to the bakkie would be the one in control, and throughout the novel Gordimer uses this to great effect.

The Smales find their new downgraded lives to be frustrating as they now stay in a one-room mud hut with no electricity or running water. It was interesting to see how the children adjusted to the changes so easily while Maureen struggled the most in order to fit in. Most of the story is told from her point-of-view, and this leads me to my first quibble about the book in that sometimes it was hard to understand what was happening. Gordimer doesn’t use standard quotations in the novel, so pieces of dialogue are mixed into descriptions of scenes. Although I got used to this as the book progressed, it took me a minute to slow down and get the feel of things.

Don’t expect many scenes of action, as this is more of a introspective study as the Smales family adjusts to their new lives. The violent uprising all occurs off-scene, as this passage demonstrates:

“For a long time, no one had really known what was happening outside the area to which his own eyes were witnesses. Riots, arson, occupation of the headquarters of international corporations, bombs in public buildings — the censorship of newspapers, radio and television left rumour and word of mouth as the only sources of information about the chronic state of uprising all over the country.”

The main theme of the novel is in how we often misunderstand the motivations and behaviors of others. I thought this was nicely handled as it was a reverse of the type of fiction I’ve read before dealing with these topics as the white people are the minority group in this situation. As a reader, I really felt Maureen’s mistrust and paranoia as the book progressed.

This was an interesting read as I loved the examination of race relations from an opposite viewpoint. This is a very short read, and I hated that it ended so quickly. However, this one is on my “read again” list as this small book is filled with little nuances. July’s People is one of those thought-provoking novels that should be read slowly, as it is one of those works where more is not being said than what is actually written on the page.

“But the transport of a novel, the false awareness of being within another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading for her, was not possible. She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone’s breath fills a balloon’s shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete with what she was finding she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination.”

Please share your thoughts on this book or this review. Comments are always welcome.



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