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Burger’s Daughter, by Nadine Gordimer

November 3, 2014

Burger’s Daughter, by Nadine Gordimer.  Penguin Books (1980), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 368 pages.


A fine novel about the daughter of a radical anti-apartheid leader seeking to choose if and how to continue his legacy. An important book for all who of us trying to figuring out how to help those treated unfairly in our society.

Nadine Gordimer excels at braiding together the political and the personal. Her characters are never mere reflections of their situations, however, but, rather, they ground her stories in the particularities of time and place. In this book, Gordimer takes us inside the apartheid movement, showing us the personal interactions of its participants.

Rosa was the daughter of a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, a group affiliated with the Communist Party. We first meet her as a fifteen-year-old bringing supplies to her imprisoned mother after school. Rosa’s family home was the center where blacks and whites mingled and loyalty to the movement reigned supreme. The dream of a more just society is accepted as good, but Rosa’s parents persuade and manipulate individuals to do their bidding. Readers learn what life was like under constant governmental surveillance.

When her father dies, a hero and martyr to the faithful, Rosa must choose whether or not to continue her parents’ work. For a time, she is uncertain about who she is and what she wants. She lives with an inconsequential young man who fosters her anger against her parents. She refuses to become absorbed back into the movement. She spends time with a variety of black South Africans–a vibrant woman whom she admires, a group of women trying to be accepted by whites, and militant fighters debating the presence of whites in their movement. With the help of a supporter of apartheid, she finally is able to obtain a visa allowing her to leave South Africa. Staying with her father’s first wife in a village in the south of France, she discovers people who delight in pleasure, living with no thought of the suffering in the world. While there, she falls in love, but is forced to realize the costs of such a life. She struggles to find a way to remove herself from her parents while still addressing the pain of apartheid.

For me, Gordimer’s writing is often dense and difficult, but very much worth the effort. I find her precise descriptions of people and places moving. Even more, I appreciate how Gordimer reveals the complexity of people’s efforts to do good. Choices are hard, and Gordimer is not judgmental. Race is vitally important for Gordimer, but the issues swirling around it are anything but simple. For me Gordimer is one of the best white authors at listening to and writing about blacks’ anger at whites who claim to help them. Her book makes Waking Up White by Debby Irving, which I recently reviewed, seem naïve.

This is a brilliant book; one which should be read by all who want to remove the injustices of our racist world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2014 4:30 am

    Another interesting review of yours. I tried reading Crimes of Conscience: Selected Short Stories by Nadine Gordimer, however, I found it dense and difficult to blend in. When you said “For me, Gordimer’s writing is often dense and difficult” i knew what you were talking about and really admire that you were able to read it all. This novel, I heard is highly acclaimed.

    • December 1, 2014 9:44 am

      Yes, Gordimer is dense, but her novels may be easier going than her short stories because she has more space for developing her ideas and the reader to absorb them. And for me, at least the effort is worth the struggle which isn’t always true with some dense writers. Thanks for commenting.

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