‘July’s People’ by Nadine Gordimer

July'sPeople

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 160 pages; 1982.

South Africa had been under apartheid rule for some 33 years when Nadine Gordimer‘s July’s People was published in 1981. The book, which imagines what would happen if black South Africans staged a violent uprising against their white minority rulers, was subsequently banned in Gordimer’s native South Africa.

The book is a masterpiece in character study, of showing the power plays between two classes of people and what happens to them when the balance shifts in an unexpected way. It focuses on Bam and Maureen Smales, enlightened white liberals, who are rescued from the ensuing violence by July, the black man who has been their faithful servant for 15 years.

July takes the couple and their three young children back to his village 600kms away, driving their yellow bakkie, a small truck of the type used by affluent white South Africans as a sporting vehicle and which Bam had bought as a treat for his 40th birthday. This vehicle later becomes an important symbol in the power struggle between July and the people he once served. Who holds the keys to it, holds the key to so much more besides.

But I digress… The Smales find themselves living in a one-roomed mud hut that once housed July’s mother. Conditions are so primitive there is no electricity, no running water and even the food on their plates must be harvested from the wild. While Maureen struggles to adjust to her new, drastically altered circumstances, Bam busies himself rigging up a water tank and shooting wild hogs to feed the village. The children readily adapt and make friends easily with their neighbours.

Plot-wise not much seems to happen, because this gently nuanced story progresses by showing how the Smales settle into their new way of life. And while it’s not told from any particular character’s point of view, it is largely through Maureen’s eyes that the reader sees things. Her paranoia feeds the reader’s paranoia, because for most of this book you expect some large drama, some diabolical violence to render the story complete. And yet there is no violence here, because the civil war has happened “off stage” before the story of the Smales’ flight to safety begins. There are just hints of what has occurred, such as this passage about one-third of the way in:

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. At home, after weeks of rioting out of sight in Soweto, a march on Johannesburg of (variously estimated) fifteen thousand blacks had been stopped at the edge of the business centre at the cost of a (variously estimated) number of lives, black and white.

For such a short novel, there’s a lot to discuss here and I suspect you could read it several times and still not get to the bottom of everything that happens between the characters. It’s a story about shifting loyalties, of trust, of privilege and dominance. And while it never outlines what motivates people to behave in the ways that they do, it certainly highlights that humans are so much more complicated, interesting and less predictable than the stereotypes might have us believe.

July’s People is not an easy read. For a start, Gordimer composes her sentences using an odd structure, so that you’re not sure what she’s referring to until you reach each full stop. Even the dialogue, with its lack of quotation marks and named speakers, can be confusing.

But despite these minor difficulties, the story is a hugely rewarding one, and the ending, which does seem slightly rushed, is filled with such ambiguity it’s hard not to think about it for days afterwards.

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16 thoughts on “‘July’s People’ by Nadine Gordimer

  1. Oh, I do like Gordimer, though I haven’t read this one. I have a littel short story next to my bed that I’ve been wanting to find time to read and review for a while. My introduction to her was back in the early 1980s, and her short story collection Six feet of the country. Gut wrenching stuff. I don’t remember much of their plots but I do remember their impact on me, and their exploration of man’s inhumanity to man. I have July’s people in my TBR. Must get to it one day.

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  2. I really liked this book, but not as much as The Pickup. It was fascinating to read: the fear creeping into the relationship between July and Maureen, the children adjusting quickly and becoming part of the community and Bam seemingly shutting himself off in projects and hunting (keeping busy?). But I did find it difficult to get into; as you mentioned, the writing style is not easy. It would have been better if I could read the book in one sitting or perhaps two, but I steal a page or two throughout my day, never really getting into the rhythm of her writing. Which is a shame. If you liked this one, I really suggest The Pickup, which is a little bit more modern and addresses equally fascinating issues.

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  3. Well, I wouldn’t class 160 pages as too much hard work, Jackie! It’s a challenging book, but I like challenging books, because it makes the experience of reading so much more gratifying to me. I hate being spoon-fed, which is probably why I enjoyed this book a lot. I’ll look forward to reading your review when you get around to writing it.

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  4. I’d imagine this one would be difficult to get into if you read it in short bursts. I think I read it in two sittings.
    You have me intrigued by The Pickup now…I will have to go and investigate.

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  5. It’s definitely worth reading if you can extract it from your TBR. Thanks for recommending the short story collection. I don’t see Gordimer’s work much explored or written about on blogs, so it’s nice to hear that one of her books made such an impact on you. Have made a note to look it up online.

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  6. Everytime I see another book group members thoughts on this I think two things ‘oh they wrote that so much better than me’ and ‘oh no and I missed that bit out’.
    I do find book group books the hardest to discuss in a blog as after the meeting I have soooooo much to say and think about with it all! Loely meeting, very interesting book!

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  7. The suggestion you have about reading Gordimer in as few sittings as possible makes sense, considering the writing style of the only book of hers I’ve read: The Conservationist. I loved her descriptions in the book, but I found the plot slow-going. Perhaps that is because I didn’t read it all at once and had to keep settling back into her writing style. July’s People has a premise that I find very intriguing, so it’s going on my reading list this year. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  8. I am still thinking about this book over a week later; it is so nuanced and has so much to offer in such a compact book. I picked up the audio book of The Pick-Up (excuse the “pun”) from the library based on the recommendation above and also old Virago copies of Gordimer’s earlier novels, The Lying Days and Occasion for Loving, both of which sound brilliant. Gordimer does amazing things with race relations and her character studies are indeed masterful.

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  9. I’ll admit that Gordimer has long intimidated me, which is why I’ve never read any of her books before, but I so enjoyed this one I really want to read more of her stuff. The Pick-Up sounds wonderful, going by the synopsis on Amazon, and my tastes largely concur with Kinga’s (who is one of the old faithfuls and has been reading my blog since the start), so I know I’ll probably love it. Be interested to hear what you make of it (although sadly, I just can’t “do” audio-books — I get distracted and end up tuning out), as well as the others you mention.

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  10. Hahaha… we all think that, Simon! But I like that everyone has a different reviewing style and picks up things that others might have missed or chosen not to mention. I think it’s great to see so many different takes on the one book. Reading is such an intimate experience, so being able to share it with like-minded others is a real treat.

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  11. I’ve put off reading The Conservationist because I’ve only ever heard bad things about it, despite it being a Booker Prize winner. I think I’d be more inclined to read it now…

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  12. Very difficult to read and to stay focussed, didn’t like it and wasn’t bothered to read it again to find the other meanings. Difficult books, not readable for teenagers

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