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A brilliant, powerfully ambiguous assessment of an imaginary collapse in Apartheid,
This review is from: July's People (Paperback)
This short, ambiguous and intensely claustrophobic novel, written at the height of apartheid, imagines a revolution where Black people throughout South Africa are rising up, reclaiming their country and murdering any white people they find. The white liberal middle-class couple Maureen and Bam have been relatively respectful and supportive of their black Servant, July, over many years, and so he agrees to shelter them in his rural village while the worst of the violence ensues outside. The novel centres on how this white family barely acclimatises to this relatively primitive life, how they interact with the black community around them, and their ongoing relationship with July, who now is in effect the master of their domain. The style, mainly told through the eyes of Maureen and Bam, is stilted, with half-sentences, unexpected changes of subject, at times almost hallucinatory physical detail, yet only a sparse smattering of inner thoughts. The world and everyone in it seems to be subjected to a conceptual fog. As the novel progresses, Maureen and Bam increasingly, unwittingly, lose their former civilised possessions and symbols of power, as step by step they are reduced to the black people they are living with, and July's attitude towards them shifts towards defiance and indifference. They stumble through basic survival as if in dementia - they have no idea who steals their prized white possessions or how, they only hear transitory snippets of the state of the world and the revolution outside, and even their memories of their past relations with July at times seems hopelessly flawed. The only clarity for the reader to emerge occurs during the dialogue, which is blisteringly accurate, particularly between Maureen and Bam, but even here most chats are littered with failures to understood each other's thoughts. Sometimes this is simply because of the problems with language, but one suspects it also reflects that no one understands themselves or their motives, let alone anyone else's . So these spoken sentences are meagre oases in a novel which gains considerable power from its vagueness, ambiguity and seeming lack of direction. It is almost impossible for us to place on a firm footing any of the relationships between the major characters, particularly of that between July and Maureen, which at times could be defined as Master and Slave, at others is the reverse of this, and still at other moments feels like two lovers or even an old married couple. It is equally difficult to understand why July looks after this white family. Such profound ambiguities of relationships run through this central artery of the novel and pervade every inch of its flesh. They also make it an absolutely fascinating and rich read, and one that probably demands a second reading immediately after the first.