Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Nadine Gordimer, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Pickup’ by Nadine Gordimer

Pickup

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 288 pages; 2002.

The prospect of reading Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer used to make me tremble in my boots. But earlier this year I read July’s People and found her style and her subject matter refreshing. I was keen to try more of her work, and when Kinga recently mentioned The Pickup in her Triple Choice Tuesday selection I decided to give this one a whirl.

The dictionary defines “pickup” as: “an instance of approaching someone and engaging in romantic flirtation and courting with the intent to pursue romance, a date, or a sexual encounter”.

In this novel, which begins in South Africa, it’s not really clear who’s picking up who, when Julie, a white woman from a privileged background, starts going out with Abdu, the mechanic who fixes her car. The relationship seems destined to be short-lived because Abdu, who is from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, is an illegal immigrant. But Julie, a PR professional, couldn’t care less about the stigma attached to this new relationship, because she’s determined to carve her own way in life, free from her overbearing father’s money, his expectations and his much younger second wife.

The authorities eventually catch up with Abdu. As his deportation looms, Julie makes a surprising decision: she will marry him and move to his home country that he hates so much.

The bulk of the book is therefore set in an unspecified Islamic country, where poverty is the natural order and the family is the glue which holds society together. To Julie, an only child who’s survived her parent’s divorce, living with a rather large and extended family is not the claustrophobic experience one might expect. She treats this new life as an adventure and adapts surprisingly well. But all the while Abdu is applying for legal asylum in other countries in the hope to provide them both with a better life.

As one by one, his applications are turned down, Abdu’s resentment, frustration and anger builds. Will their relationship stand the strain? Will Julie abandon him and run back to South Africa? Or will Abdu come to terms with the good things in his life rather than searching for something he cannot have?

The Pickup is one of those books that is rich with meaning and motifs, exploring as it does the notion of race, culture and identity. It also examines the divide between East and West, rich and poor, the freedom of movement versus immigration controls. But in Gordimer’s hands these universal issues are handled in an understated way. She merely plants the seeds and it’s you, the reader, who joins the dots and mulls things over and wonders how on earth she has said so much using so few words!

But this is a demanding read, one that requires plenty of space and time to digest properly. Gordimer’s sentence structure is diametrically opposed to the normal rigours of Plain English and takes some time to get used to. This is not a criticism. Indeed, I like that a writer can use the language in such a way that it forces me to change my reading habits: instead of racing through the text, eager to find out what happens next, I took my time and lingered over each sentence, absorbing each one slowly but surely, before moving onto the next one.

There’s no doubt that The Pickup is hard work, but I so enjoyed the story and the issues it throws up it has only made me more determined to explore more of Gordimer’s extensive back catalogue. Suggestions for other titles to try are more than welcome.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, Publisher, Saudi Arabia, Setting

‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel

EightMonths

Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 298 pages; 2004.

Take a look at Hilary Mantel’s back catalogue and I defy you to name another living British author with such a diverse range of subjects and genres under his or her belt. I’ve only read two of Mantel’s books — the delicious black comedy Beyond Black and her critically acclaimed memoir Giving up the Ghost — but have been keen to explore more of her work.

Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, originally published in 1988, came much recommended by visitors to this blog. It turned out to be a superb, insidiously creepy read, the kind of story that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you.

Repression and secrecy

It’s set in Saudi Arabia, a highly secretive and repressive society, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything, there are strict laws about what you can wear in public and women are not allowed to drive.

Into this restrictive and claustrophobic world come British expats Frances and Andrew Shore. Andrew, an engineer, has a job working for a private construction company in Jeddah. Frances, a cartographer, is forbidden from working, because of her gender, so she must spend her days “keeping house”.

Despite the fact that both are used to strange cultures — they lived in Zambia, where poverty, violence and corruption went hand in hand, for many years — Frances is immediately uncomfortable in her new surroundings. Instead of living in an expat compound, they’ve chosen to live among the natives, in an apartment block in a quiet neighbourhood. But everything is walled in and even one of the doorways has been bricked up, creating a cavern-like abode rarely penetrated by daylight.

Not long into their stay Andrew tells her about a psychiatrist’s study into the stress on immigrant workers, and you know his words are going to be prophetic:

‘When you get here and everything’s so strange, you feel isolated and
got at – that’s Phase One. But then you learn how to manage daily life,
and for a while the place begins to seem normal, and you’ll even defend
the way things are done here, you’ll start explaining to newcomers that
it’s all right really – that’s Phase Two. You coast along, and then
comes Phase Three, the second wave of paranoia. And this time around it
never goes.’

Leaving the house becomes almost impossible. Even a stroll down the street, wearing her “baggiest smock and sandals”, is beset with unwanted attention from leering men:

A man in a Mercedes truck slowed to a crawl beside her. ‘I give you a
lift, madam?’ She ignored him. Quickened her step. ‘Tell me where you
want to go, madam. Just jump right in.’ He leaned across, as if to open
the near door. Frances turned and stared into his face; her own face
bony, white, suffused with a narrow European rage. The man laughed. He
waved a hand, dismissively, as if he were knocking off a fly, and drove
away.

With not much else to do, Frances befriends the Muslim women living in the building and finds herself unable to come to terms with the religious and cultural differences between them. She finds a similar discord with the expatriate community in which she is expected to socialise.

Before long paranoia takes ahold. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, Frances begins to hear unexplained noises — a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around. When she sees a strange presence in the apartment block’s stairwell, she’s convinced that something illegal is going on, but no one, including her husband, believes her when she voices her concerns. Perhaps she’s going stir crazy after all?

On the verge of a nervous breakdown 

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller of the finest order. It reads like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because Frances is an intelligent worldy-wise woman, you know that her fears aren’t fickle.

Mantel builds up the tension slowly but surely, revealing Frances’ increasing sense of foreboding through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the third-person narrative. It’s a highly effective device.

Interestingly, the story does not paint a very flattering portrait of Saudi Arabia, but Mantel, who lived in Jeddah with her husband, a geologist, for four years in the 1980s, makes no bones about this. In the reader’s guide that comes with this edition, she writes: “When you come across an alien culture you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes  pay it the compliment of hating it.”