Analysis

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

In this novel set in South Africa after the end of apartheid and white rule, Nadine Gordimer places a single heterosexual relationship at the story’s center. Her decision to focus on one couple accentuates the individual, human dimension of a complex array of national (and global) social and political problems. At the same time, the broad reach of the issues she presents make them difficult to encapsulate in these two characters, who often seem less like plausibly genuine people than like conglomerates of features selected to prove points. In addition, the pair is unbalanced, with more attention paid to and more dimensionality achieved for Julie Summers, the white female protagonist, than for Ibrahim ibn Musa, the nonwhite male character.

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Julie is similar to many friends in her Johannesburg set. These affluent white liberals, mostly young, are deeply concerned with analyzing social ills; at the same time, they show an irreverent attitude that implies they see those ills as incurable. As most of them have well-paying jobs and family support to fall back on, their feelings for those of other classes and races tend toward the abstract. After Julie starts dating Ibrahim, known then as Abdu, they assume she is just playing around—and, indeed, her original intentions seemed more to have a sexual adventure with a dark-skinned foreigner than to get to know another human being.

Abdu’s motivations for pursuing a relationship with Julie are even less well developed. Gordimer portrays him alternately as naively impressed with the trappings of capitalist modernity and as sensitive to the racist, nationalist, and religious prejudice to which he is subjected. His infatuation not just with upper-class materialism but also with making his way in white society does not always ring true. Although their relationship might have continued unchanged for some time, Abdu’s precarious immigration status forces Julie’s hand. She could simply let their affair end when he is sent away. For reasons that the author does not entirely make clear, Julie decides to stay with him—which means going with him.

This decision sets in motion the events of the second part of the book, which seems in ways like a completely different work. Because Gordimer has been writing for decades about her native South African setting, she is in solid ground in those scenes. Her decision not to give Ibrahim an actual national identity is one aspect that makes his character less believable than Julie’s. The specificity of the Johannesburg settings offers a contrast to the generic desert village that Ibrahim’s home seems to be. His other family members, as well, have little depth and seem to exist primarily in terms of their reaction to his new bride—for marriage is a condition of Julie’s accompanying him to his home.

Gordimer’s critique of the shallowness of upper-class South African society, which she shows as having weak family ties, is highlighted by the positive values Julie finds in Ibrahim’s unnamed country. These include not just family but also religion, as Julie begins to learn about Islam. Unfortunately, the lack of precision in the author’s portrayal of life outside her own country makes the novel seem rather old-fashioned, as if the contemporary young people’s solution was to be found in a romantic, Orientalist vision of North Africa. In that respect, the novel comes across as rather dated, and the fate of the young lovers may not engage the reader’s interest.

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