Set in barely post-apartheid South Africa, this is primarily the story of Vera Stark, who has spent her career working for a legal foundation as an advocate for housing rights. Her longevity makes her an unofficial executive director, and she commands tremendous respect. While Vera and her work are at the center of this book, it is also a moving portrait of two marriages. Vera is a strong woman, and fiercely independent. Her husband Ben needs her more than she needs him. Vera’s past figures heavily in her present, and in her relationship with Ben. Vera and Ben have very liberal views about race, and are long-time friends with a black South African couple, Sibongile (Sally) and Didymus Maqoma. Sally and Didy have only recently returned from exile, and in a surprise turn of events Sally is elected to an important post, and Didy finds himself on the sidelines.
Several threads run concurrently through this book. One of Vera’s black colleagues, Oupa, shows the reader a different layer of black society from that of Didy and Sally, and presents one of the more moving parts of the novel. Vera and Ben’s adult children have relationships and challenges of their own, and intersect with the parents’ lives in interesting ways. Sally and Didy’s daughter Mpho is a teenager, causing her parents angst as she comes of age. And then there’s Vera and Ben, whose relationship appears unshakable, but is actually threatened by a number of forces.
Nadine Gordimer also has a lot to say about the political structure taking shape in her country at the time of publication (1994), and its effect on everyday people. I suspect there were nuances in the text that went completely over my head. Deeper knowledge would have helped me appreciate the political context underpinning this study of characters and relationships.