July’s People is the 1981 published novel, in an imagined situation of anti-apartheid South Africa that descends into civil war. The white, liberal Smales are rescued by their servant, July, and taken to his village for protection, where they must adjust to a new life.
July’s People is written from the viewpoint of Maureen Smales, wife to Bam and mother to their three children. It is a short book, with an uncomfortable style. The writing is fragmented and took a while for me to warm to. It did not suit being picked up and put down at bedtime, but fared better with a run to grow accustomed to the style. The disjointed writing somehow echoes the situation that the Smales’ find themselves in – the exodus from Johannesburg in the yellow bakkie, or the snatched news that comes from a radio that is impossible to tune. Within this bumpy narrative is gasping beauty in Gordiner’s writing. Not once did I want to give up on her, or the Smales’ plight. You can really imagine yourself there, living an alien life in a country you know to be home, all credit to Gordiner’s writing.
In July’s People, Gordiner has created a story whereby the roles of the Smales and July are reversed. Nothing is the same once they flee, and July gradually gathers all the power. This is a novel about this reversal and the adjustment that the family go through. The Smales are dependent on July, and July’s People, for their hut, their food and their lives. The Smales are ill-equipped to deal with the life they find themselves in. They can’t speak the local language, they can’t thatch a hut, and they can’t gather plants. The theme of power is an important one in the book, and there are several points where the position of power changes. When July has the keys to the bakkie. When the Chief summons them to decide if they can remain. When the Chief asks Bam to teach him to shoot. When Bam’s gun goes missing and July refuses to help. There is a slow shift in power in Gordiner’s story, with a magnificent symmetry in this reversal that you discover when you finish the story and reflect on the whole.
Bam’s undoing is heightened when his gun is stolen, which emancipates him and renders him powerless, useless. Maureen becomes more alert through this, and more detached in a different way. She sees her husband dissolving in front of her. Her children flourish. They have learned the language and play with children of the village, and run more and more feral and independent. The children, you see, have adapted, where their parents fail to.
In July’s People, after the initial exodus, nothing happens and yet everything happens. The decision to flee brings a chain reaction of events that you wonder if Bam and Maureen would have taken had they known the outcome. The Smales become July’s People.
The ending of July’s People is unexpected, and initially I felt disappointed by it and had to read it over again. As it draws to a close, the narration becomes increasingly introspective, as Gordiner takes us further into Maureen’s mind, her own trauma. She sees herself in increasing isolation from her family. Previously the protector, she has no real place in the life she finds herself in, and in an almost euphoric madness she chases after a helicopter that has landed nearby, presumably in search of rescue from the rescue that she finds herself trapped in. It is extremely clever, and part of the symmetry of the story. Genius.
July’s People is part of my Reading Challenge for 2016, and is a book that was once banned. It was banned in South Africa.