I have to say that Book Group last night was the perfect tonic for my current mind frame, it was lovely to see everyone and to meet a new member. In fact we had two new members as one of the group is pregnant, some very joyful news, and we are all already calling it Book Group Baby, so it really was just the right evening for me and I am so glad I went. I am doubly glad as we had a fantastic discussion about the book ‘July’s People’ by Nadine Gordimer. One thing that always irks me after book group is I have so much to say about a book my thoughts on the blog never encapsulate everything, but then again you wouldn’t want to read the book if everything was spelt out would you?
I think its best for me to be straight with you all and say I went into reading ‘July’s People’ with certain expectations. I thought ‘this will be a gory and horrific tale of the tumultuous events in South Africa, its going to be emotional shocking and something bad will happen to the main characters’ and that interestingly isn’t the case at all with this book. The actual story follows the flight from the city of white couple Bam and Maureen Smales have been living in luxury for years. Their saviour is their servant of fifteen years July who drives them to the safety of his village, a poverty stricken village where food must be caught and money has no real value. From here on in through the eyes of all the characters involved we look at how life changes for all the parties involved as they wait for whatever fate has in store for them and as they struggle to gain a new order of power in their new situations.
Despite being written through many characters eyes, in a slightly disorientating style which I will come to in a moment, the tale really gravitates around Maureen. A woman who clearly believes she was the best mistress a servant could have has her eyes shockingly opened and yet fights it. She feels gratitude for being rescued and then as the power shifts her true colours slowly emerge. She also never really fits in, though does she actually try to or is she a woman trapped? I found the idea of the story really interesting; it looks at how some whites had treated blacks and how things could be when roles are reversed. I say could be because I later found out this book was written by Gordimer as a possible future prediction for South Africa and was what she thought could happen not what actually happened, once I knew that afterwards the book in a strange way made much more sense.
The other thing that threw me at first apart from trying to place this historically was Gordimer’s writing style. I actually had to read the opening chapter three times to gain any gist of it because very like a certain Miss Woolf there is a stream of consciousness to it. You hop skip and jump between characters and their thoughts not only between paragraphs but also on occasion in between sentences. Interestingly I adapted to it and ended up, about 30 pages in, forgetting how it was written because I was very much in the story will the people. The discussion the book raised was great and we all agreed we liked the book and would read Gordimer again.
One subject that I raised which we talked about at some length at the end was how we read a book and what we expect from it. I noticed that for me both the writing and the setting not being based on truth and instead being the author’s vision caused problems in initially getting into the book. Other people agreed with this and said they were reading thinking ‘this book has real major plot’ or ‘this isn’t how a book is normally written’ but we all then agreed ‘why should it?’ which raises interesting questions about how as readers we read. Do we just expect a book to spell out everything for us? Why do we assume every book has to be based somewhere on fact?
It’s food for thought and opens up a whole new discussion which I will leave for another day, maybe I’ll create a post about it in the next week or so and we can all discuss it here further in the future; I need to mull it all over more first myself. As you can see’ July’s People’ is a great book for discussion in more ways than one, it wont be a book for everyone and you have to work at it but the rewards and questions it brings are well worth it.