In an extraordinary period immediately before the first non-racial election and the beginning of majority rule in South Africa, Vera Stark, the protagonist of Nadine Gordimer's passionate novel, weaves a ruthless interpretation of her own past into her participation in the present as a lawyer representing blacks in the struggle to reclaim the land. The return of exiles is transforming the city, and through the lives of Didymus Maqoma, his wife Sibongile, and their lovely daughter who cannot even speak her parents' African language, the listener experiences the strange passions, reversals, and dangers that accompany new-won access to power.
The latest novel from Nobel Prize-winner Gordimer about private and public life among South Africa's blacks and whites begins rather slowly, but it includes so many brilliant moves of plot and character, and such emotionally rending scenes and moments, that by the end a reader understands again what a novel can do, and why other genres can't do it: narrate personal and political history on a scale that is both scrupulously detailed and enormous. Here Gordimer narrates with toughness, yet also tenderly, offering the domestic and professional chronicle of two families, friendly with each other, who work over the course of decades for South Africa's liberation from white supremacy. Vera and Bennet Stark are white, while Sibongile and Didymus Maqoma are black Africans who were once forced into exile for their nationalism but have since returned home. Vera is the most vivid, contradictory and well-developed of the four characters--a woman whose political activism combines with an unconventionally free erotic drive. Her capacity for sympathetic understanding of people who lack her privileges and experience is marked, and it is a means of her survival. The book is set amid political violence and marital struggle, the evolution of a nation and of individuals, while offering union and ``the joy of restoration'' as an underlying--and complicated--moral theme. Though occasionally overdetermined by too many parallels and patterns, Gordimer's novel is powerfully complex and startling in its insights. 60,000 first printing. (Sept.)