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Customer reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars

on 14 October 2016
I am finding Bitter Fruit a difficult book to review mainly, I think, because despite striving to understand the Ali family, their actions were frequently too far removed from my own life experience to be able to empathise. Lydia's rape, while not graphically described, is a dark, brooding presence throughout the novel, one single vicious act which is symbolic of the many similar assaults inflicted during South Africa's apartheid years. The unravelling of its aftermath took a while to pull me in and it wasn't until the second half of Bitter Fruit that I found the book strongly maintained my interest. That said, this is a worthwhile book to read! It is a slow burn of a piece; gently paced prose in sharp contrast to the violence and anger it describes.

Dangor evokes South Africa at perhaps the second of its greatest recent turning points when the Truth and Reconciliation Committee is about to submit its report to the nation and another president will replace Mandela. On the face of it, the country is at peace with itself and set to progress into the future and the same applies to the Ali family who are also, on the face of it, a closely-tied unit. Silas' legal profession will remain in demand as his TRC work is coming to a close and son Mikey is set for college and a career of his own. But it just takes one chance encounter to release deeply-buried memories and the whole house of cards slowly collapses in on itself. The question of Bitter Fruit is whether what is true for one family within South Africa might also become truth for the country herself. Is the legacy of decades of brutal suppression and oppression too much to be overcome?
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on 25 March 2002
Homegrown gem: Achmat Dangor
Born in 1948 into a strictly Muslim household in Johannesburg, Achmat Dangor spent a great deal of his childhood in Cape Town's colourful District Six where in addition to attending a conventional Western school, he also went to Islamic school (madrassa) on a daily basis. It was an upbringing that was to stand him in good stead for his later role of both political activist and storyteller.
In the 1970s Dangor, then a university student, joined the political movement founded by Steve Biko. What with the notorious forced removals of the residents from their homes in District Six, and his growing awareness of an unjust political system, Dangor turned to his passion, writing, as a means of expression. His first collection, Waitng for Leila openly and lyrically laments the systematic breaking down of the community he'd grown up in. While the writing was raw, and by no means his best work, this slim tome obvious struck a nerve, and before long, in 1973, Dangor was banned from writing by the Apartheid regime.
For 13 years he lived in exile in the US and wrote about the land of his birth from afar, trying wherever possible to generate awareness about what was really going on here. He went on to write The Z-town Trilogy in which he drew attention to the base reality of life within the struggle and how it affected personal relationships; and, more recently, Kafka's Curse, which shows a move away from the mythic cadence of his earlier work towards a more grounded, hard-hitting realism.
He has won numerous awards for his writing, but strangely remains relatively unrecognised as a novelist by the South African public. Ask the man on the street who Achmat Dangor is and he's most likely to respond 'CEO of the Nelson Mandela Childen's Fund', which indeed he was until recently when he gave up his post to pursue his literary career full-time. A move that seems to be paying off.
Dangor's powerful yet stark new book, Bitter Fruit (Kwela Books, R89,95) has just hit the shelves and, in true Dangor style, he's not pulling any punches. Set in 90s South Africa, post-TRC, it is the story of two people working out their demons and coming to understand their role and identity within the new order. Silas, who works for the Department of Justice, and Lydia, a nurse, seem trapped in an utterly loveless marriage, haunted by a past brutality, a critical moment in time that bound them together as much as it drove them apart. Through Silas and Lydia's brittle relationship Dangor draws attention to the fact that some wounds run far deeper than public forums like the TRC have the power to heal. The couple's relationship with each other and, quite pivotally, with their emotionally detached son Mikey, holds up a mirror to the greater social project of the TRC, raising a wealth of questions as yet unasked. A passionate, moving and often heart-wrenching look at how far we've come as a nation, and yet how very far we still have to go.
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on 2 February 2005
The writing style of this punchy novel by Achmat Dangor is so
economic and subtly crafted that I read this terrifically compelling
book in a single sitting.
Charting the dismayingly inevitable breakdown in the relationships
between the three central characters - idealistically driven father
Silas, haunted and unstable wife Lydia and their confused son Mikey -
the central journey through their own personal truth and (partial)
reconciliation is set against the broader backdrop of the post-
Apartheid process of the same name.
The emotional and political landscape that Bangor depicts is one
full of complications, betrayals and the searchings for truth
through the half-darkness of mis-remembered pasts. This is not the
sunny rainbow nation: rather, it is a brutal and twisted aftermath to
hideous acts that cannot be forgotten or forgiven. Racial, religious
and sexual confusions and distortions weave through the narrative
and create a sense of dark foreboding - a land where the centre
cannot hold. The "bitter fruit" of the title seems to refer to both
the consequences of apartheid as well as the double-edged sword of new found freedom - a freedom in which relative values seem to become disorientated, a freedom where conventional moralities lose their grip. At the most obvious level, of course, the bitter fruit is Mikey himself: the product of perhaps the ultimate desecration - rape - and a symbol of the unhappy congruence of old and new, white and black, oppressor and oppressed. The bitterness cannot be contained.
All very engaging, and the mapping of the pyschological journies of
these central characters takes a real hold. Where the novel, I feel,
lets us down slightly is in its conjuring of the sights, sounds and
smells of the new South Africa. The narrative is so focused on the
interior lives of these characters that they don't come alive in a
very real sense. I couldn't really imagine what they looked like and
scenery and context never really progresssed beyond a collage of
hints, some of these very powerfully expressed however. Perhaps
unsurprisingly, skin features heavily both in a very real, physical
sense (the prose really comes alive at these points) and as a
metaphor - a metaphor for self-protection and containment, for
fragility and vulnerability (shockingly so for Lydia in an early
pivotal episode). The climax of the novel is stunning, both in narrative terms - so deeply moving - and in terms of its descriptive power.
I recommend this novel whole-heartedly - its handling of the deep
emotional issues of love, passion and guilt is masterly and utterly
riveting and, once again, it is proved that nothing is simply black
and white.
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on 8 November 2004
Dangor's novel of a family disintegrating in post-apartheid South Africa has garnered considerable critical acclaim, including the Booker short-list for 2004. I simply want to say that all the attention and honours it has received are richly deserved.
Very briefly, there are three great inter-related strengths to this work. Firstly, Dangor's prose is so well-crafted and vivid. Secondly, the reader is given perceptive insights into modern South Africa and the (often universal) issues facing it today. Thirdly, all of the characters - including the minor ones - are so real: it may be cliched, but the Silas, Lydia and Mikey do indeed linger in the mind long, long after finishing this exceptional work.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 July 2010
At a climactic moment of Achmat Dangor's novel, "Bitter Fruit", a secondary character relates a traumatic story which works to the following conclusion: "There are certain things people do not forget, or forgive. Rape is one of them. In ancient times, conquerors destroyed the will of those whom they conquered by impregnating the women. It is an ancient form of genocide." (p. 204)

In the novel, a rape which can neither be forgotten nor forgiven plays a central role. The violation of rape is important in itself, and it also serves as the defining metaphor for Dangor's picture of apartheid in South Africa and its consequence. The novel is set in the late 20th Century as South Africa struggles to emerge from its apartheid past. It is set against the background of the amnesty policy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which the evils of the past would be memorialized and acknowledged but without bloodshed. The hope was for the country to move on while minimizing vengeance, vendettas, or grudges.

The primary characters are Silas Ali, a former activist and attorney for the TRC, his wife Lydia, and their late adolescent son Mikey who mid-way through the novel begins calling himself Michael. Silas and Lydia are both of mixed racial background but are otherwise quite different from each other. About 20 years before the story begins Lydia had been raped by a white policeman, Du Boise, in the presence of Silas who was unable to prevent the outrage. Then, 20 years later Silas runs into the aged Du Boise at a supermarket and a confrontation almost ensues. During the intervening 20 years, the couple had rarely discussed the incident which festered between them. The marriage was unhappy, sexually and otherwise. When Silas tells Lydia of his meeting with DuBois, something snaps inside both husband and wife. Lydia cuts her feet on broken glass, "dancing on glass" and is hospitalized. While visiting her, Silas has a stroke and is also hospitalized.

While his parents are hospitalized, Mikey, a brooding and introspective lad with an interest in literature finds his mother's diary and reads it. He has reason to think that he is the child of Du Boise's rape of his mother.

Besides the three primary characters, the novel offers glimpses of their family and colleagues. The latter part of the book includes a portrayal of the portion of South Africa's Islamic community which either sponsors or condones terrorism. Besides the pivotal rape incident, the book includes many scenes of other forms of sexuality, including child abuse, incest, bisexual and polyamorous relationships, closeted gay sexuality and more. Most of the sexual activity is of forms that are offensive as is most, but not all, of the sexual conduct itself.

The book was Booker Prize finalist. It offers a portrayal of the difficulties South Africa faces in moving forward and beyond its tarnished past. For the most part, I did not find "Bitter Fruit" convincing as a novel. Here are some of my reasons. Many of the individual scenes as well as the dialogue are sharp and crisp. But they contrast with the story line which drags. Other than the three primary characters, most of the other people in the book receive shadowy portrayals which distract from the story. In minute detail, the book describes the vileness and the long-term effects of rape and the book's analogy between rape and apartheid has some effect. The author is critical of the Truth and Reconciliation policy and he suggests that neither rape nor apartheid should be readily put aside without some attempt at what appears to be vengeance. The novel did not move me to share such a conclusion. Furthermore, the book's focus on the vile and debasing forms of human sexual practices, in addition to the rape on which the story turns, did not seem to me to add a great deal to the novel.

The novel's focus on the Ali family and on the various sexual issues of the family members and other characters also distracted from considering the book as a story of the difficulties of an emergent South Africa. The book was more the story of a sharply dysfunctional family. And the focus of the book wanders unconvincingly from Silas, to Michael, to Lydia. Lydia ultimately works to some degree of freedom from the rape and from her marriage in a brief sexual encounter with a young man after which she leaves Silas. The story line seems to shift from a metaphor about South Africa to a story of a woman in search of a difficult personal and sexual freedom. This is an inadequate denouement for the book. The story of apartheid and its aftermath encompasses people of many and diverse backgrounds as well as people of both genders. Overall, this novel does not succeed.

Robin Friedman
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on 1 June 2005
This is a novel for all those wondering why they restrict their reading to British and American fiction, or, in my case, mainly just British. I'd decided to read, and compare for myself, all last year's Booker shortlisted novels, and found this one impressively original.
The story is of the torments of an ordinary South African family, set against the macrocosmic torments of a country in seismic political upheaval with the apartheid era moving into its death-throes. The Alis' fragile family life [and NOT, as the back-cover itself states, "the Ali's fragile family life"...; perhaps time somebody at Atlantic Books had a look at Lynne Truss?] is thus an illustration of a country and a civilisation in transition as the present struggles to accommodate itself to the past, represented on the political level by the injustice of racial segregation and discrimination and on the personal level by the rape of a black woman by a white man.
"When Mikey thinks of his mother, the word 'Mama' no longer comes to mind." The novel also deals with the difficulties of growing up and the generation gap. Nearly everyone in the book has secrets of some kind, and characters attempt, and unwittingly fail, to know what is going on in each other's minds. Inevitably, things fall apart, differences become irreconcilable; "Bitter Fruit" is a meticulously observed study of the difficulties of coming to terms with the past and with change. It fully deserved its place on the Booker shortlist.
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on 6 April 2005
Achmat Dangor once again portrayed himself as a great storyteller in this masterful story set in post-apartheid South Africa. Based on the story of a mixed race character, Dangor's true life experiences give credence to his brilliant plot and rich character development that made the story so alive. The pace is fast and a reader easily gets sucked into the novel without knowing it. This page turner is a recommended read.Also recommended: THE USURPER AND OTHER STORIES,THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS,DISCIPLES OF FORTUNE, THE COLOR OF WATER, TRIPLE AGENT DOUBLE CROSS.I equally liked their setings and story lines.
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on 6 May 2014
I gave this to my sister on her birthday. It was sent direct and arrived on time. I had read it and knew it was a book she would appreciate. The chances are that I will read it again.
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on 30 March 2016
Very dark book, sad, really bitter! intelligent, sensitive, I learned a lot about South Africa reading this book!
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on 3 April 2005
takes one to current day South Africa in a manner that news reports cant match. Real people, uncomfortable situations, but wholly believable. How do a country's people come to terms with a new way of relating in a changed environment. Not necessarily encouraging but totally engrossing. Highly recommended
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