Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380
Nadine Gordimer’s novel has two main characters, Julie Summers and Ibrahim ibn Musa, and traces their romance and marriage. The novel takes place in Julie's home country of South Africa, where Ibrahim ibn Musa is living and working temporarily, calling himself Abdu, and in his home country, which the author does not name, in northern Africa. The other characters, primarily their family members, are not well developed and seem incidental to the two lovers’ story.
Julie, who works at a generic, unsatisfying job in an unnamed corporation, is simultaneously climbing the corporate ladder and rejecting the values on which her employment is based. Her family’s privileged background has enabled her to grow up comfortably in Johannesburg’s suburbs and then get a good education and a good job, as her father is an investment banker. She is not close to her mother, who has remarried and lives in California. Julie rejects the values that prop up such a social system, however—a position she shares with many other white young people in the early post-apartheid years in South Africa. She enjoys socializing with like-minded friends and debating their role in their country’s future. The author implies that Julie’s interest in Abdu is initially shallow, as she sees him as a symbol more than a person.
Ibrahim ibn Musa is a Muslim Arab who earned a university degree in economics before immigrating to South Africa for work. Regarding his employment as a mechanic as a necessary stepping stone to a white-collar future, he is encouraged that his romance with Julie fits with his aspirations. The reader gets to know him better after he and Julie marry and they move to his hometown. Although Ibrahim rejects the narrow constraints and the highly limited opportunities in his country, he has grown into an ambitious person in part through being raised in a large, extended family.
Mr. Summers, Julie’s father, is not well-developed. He seems more of a stereotype of an upper-class, well-connected banker who reluctantly acknowledges what he sees as his daughter’s whim in dating someone of a lower status, but he cannot disguise his racist, classist biases.
Maryam is Ibrahim’s sister who lives in their community, with whom Julie initially develops a friendly, sisterly relationship.