None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer
None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer. Penguin Books (1995), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages.
Another amazing novel by the Noble Prize winner from South Africa, this time focusing on the lives of whites and blacks as apartheid ended.
Nadine Gordimer is widely recognized as a writer of dense and powerful novels that explore private lives as they are impacted by public circumstances. She probes so deeply into her characters often conflicting emotions that we as readers see unexamined aspects of ourselves. Her novels are demanding for readers. I am always left aware that I never grasp all that she is saying. But what I do understand of her finely tuned writing is more than enough reward for the effort.
In None to Accompany Me, apartheid has ended and the nation of South Africa is struggling to set up ongoing political structures that will provide for black and white equality. Violence continues, however, random and ever possible. Exiles return and must adjust to new conditions. Abstractions like justice must be translated into concrete decisions over empowerment. Roles change as new groupings vie for advantages.
At the center of None to Accompany Me, is Vera Stark, a white woman who is senior lawyer with a non-governmental foundation seeking to protect and assist blacks. In the post-apartheid era much of their work concerns conflict over land ownership. Her work is important for Vera, in past often more important than her adoring husband and two now-adult children. She is a restless, successful woman, exploring her past decisions as she ages. Sexuality has been and continues to be important for her. Ben, her husband has given up his sculpting for his family and centers his life on her. As a couple they struggle to cope with her son’s divorce and their daughter’s lesbianism.
Their black friends, Sibongile and Didymus Maqoma, have just returned to South Africa after their exile during apartheid. Didymus has been a leader in the underground, often leaving Sibongile alone with their daughter, never knowing what he was doing. Coming home to South Africa forces them into major role adjustments as he and what he did for the Movement is pushed aside and she is raised to a leadership role. Other critical characters include a young clerk newly released from Robbins Island and a calm black leader from the settlements establishing himself as a player in national affairs.
Always true to the time and place, Gordimer moves her story through the death of an old man and a young one and through the choices of the next generation. Just as South Africa is experiencing change so are the marriages she describes. Vera, in particular, is revealed as honing herself into a more solitary person as she ages.
This novel is somewhat more sensual and private than others of Gordimer’s works I have read, but like the others I recommend it wholeheartedly for readers looking for depth and intensity in their reading and who care about the connections of the public and the private.