Sylvia Clayton

  • Something Out There by Nadine Gordimer
    Cape, 203 pp, £8.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 224 02189 3
  • My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket
    Robin Clark, 247 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 86072 071 3
  • West of Sunset by Dirk Bogarde
    Allen Lane, 248 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1632 X

Nadine Gordimer continues to send sane, humane reports from the edge of darkness. In her finest stories she fixes authoritatively the experience of her South African characters, who exist in the shadow of a gun. They are menaced by repressive laws, unpredictable violence and a cruel historical process; their small domestic treacheries can carry a fatal undertow of danger. In this latest collection her tone remains cool, diagnostic, her brilliant camera eye unfazed. Even in a few pages she produces not a tentative sketch but a finished drawing. She places her figures exactly in the landscape, and the contrast between their precarious lives and her own controlled poise yields a high imaginative tension.

The education of a middle-aged, liberal-minded divorcee, Pat Haberman, becomes, in her beautifully constructed story, ‘A Correspondence Course’, a taut, ironic drama. Pat has rejected her husband’s ‘money-grubbing, country-club life’ for independence with her daughter Harriet, now a graduate student. ‘Harriet has been brought up to realise that her life of choices and decent comfort is not shared by the people in whose blackness it is embedded ... And since she has been adult she has had her place – even if silent – in the ritualistic discussion of what can be done about this by people who have no aptitude for politics but who won’t live like Haberman.’ An English journalist serving nine years in a maximum-security jail in Pretoria for political offences responds to an article by Harriet in an academic magazine. A regular, censored, monthly correspondence begins. Pat supports her daughter. She is proud of their shared compassionate attitude; she talks about the letters at parties; she is gleefully excited when he makes his escape with five years left to serve. But when she finds a bundle of clothes that Harriet has left out for the escaped prisoner, and when the man actually appears on the doorstep, she is overcome by terror.

The pressures of living in South Africa are revealed within this close mother-daughter relationship; the rhythm of the story unfolds them with increasing clarity. A mother’s protective regard for her child is central to another brief, intense story of conflicting loyalties, ‘A City of the Dead, a City of the Living’. Here everything happens inside the overcrowded little house of Moreke, a jobbing gardener. A stranger, a man with a gun, comes to lodge with Moreke, his wife and baby. Moreke feels in duty bound to give him shelter. For a week the wife watches him as she does her crochet. ‘The tiny flash of her steel hook and the hair-thin gold in his ear signalled in candlelight.’ Eventually, acting entirely on her own, the wife betrays him, one of her own people, to the police. The woman who keeps the shebeen spits in her face. The story leaves behind a faint doubt about the author’s timing, especially about the moment she chooses to stop. Since the scene has been set and the tensions have been built up with such skill, it comes as a let-down to find no explanation of the mother’s decision to turn informer and no hint as to her husband’s reaction.

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