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My Son's Story: A Novel

My Son's Story: A Novel

by Nadine Gordimer

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Will, the narrator of this powerfully charged novel, discovers that his father, a political activist and local hero in their South African town, has become involved with a white woman. Wrenching, passionate, deeply resonant, My Son's Story evokes the inexorable yoking of the personal life and politics with uniquely moving force.


Will, the narrator of this powerfully charged novel, discovers that his father, a political activist and local hero in their South African town, has become involved with a white woman. Wrenching, passionate, deeply resonant, My Son's Story evokes the inexorable yoking of the personal life and politics with uniquely moving force.

Editorial Reviews

Laurel Graeber
...Much of the novel's power and interest derive from her almost uncanny ability to portray each of the novel's characters with sympathy and subtlety....''The book is really about the problems the ordinary forms of love bring within a particular context,'' said Ms. Gordimer, ''in which love of country is inextricably bound up with these other types of love. And by love of country, I don't mean gung-ho patriotism, but involvement with the time.'' --The New York Times
New York Times Book Review
A bold, unnerving tour de force.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Highly praised as a literate goad to South Africa's conscience under apartheid, Gordimer (A Sport of Nature) here delivers her most perceptive and powerful novel in years. The story of a man's evolution as a political activist and the toll it takes on his family and on him, it is also a picture of a marriage and of an extramarital affair, set against a backdrop of daily life in segregated South Africa, even as the winds of change begin to blow. An exemplary husband and father, a pillar of rectitude in the black community, Sonny is dismissed from his teaching job after he leads a political protest. On his release from his imprisonment, he becomes a leader in the revolutionary underground; at the same time he is swept into an affair with a white woman, a worker in a human rights organization. The intertwined events that lead to the breakup of Sonny's family and the tragic end of his high hopes and ideals are partially narrated by his teenage son Will, bitter and cynical over his father's marital betrayal. The novel is eloquent in its understated prose and anguished understanding of moral complexities in a land where blacks keep ``rags...on their persons as protection against tear-gas as white people carry credit cards.'' Tightly focused and controlled, expertly plotted, the narrative is replete with ironies; the tension increases almost invisibly, until the unexpected, jolting denouement. In the end, Will resolves to record ``what it really was like to live a life determined by the struggle to be free.'' Which is exactly what this book does, honestly and memorably.
Library Journal
Gordimer's new novel, about a colored South African family ravaged by the father's affair with a white human rights advocate, probes with breathtaking power and precision the complexities of ``love, love/hate,'' and the interplay of public and private reality. First-person narration shows son Will's struggle to deal with confusion and bitterness after discovering father Sonny's infidelity; alternating third-person sequences depict Sonny's evolution from a committed schoolteacher and devoted husband/father into a resistance worker for whom the movement itself ultimately becomes a second family--one his loyal wife Aila cannot share with him, though his lover Hannah does. The book's richness of sensation and consciousness is such that Gordimer's eloquence is, at times, almost unbearable. Always, though, she retains perfect control over her material, rendering her characters' shifting perspectives with truly extraordinary empathy and discernment. -- Elise Chase, Forbes Library, Northampton, Massachusetts
— Ravonne A. Green, Emmanuel College Library, Franklin Springs, GA
— Ravonne A. Green, Emmanuel College Library, Franklin Springs, GA
— Ravonne A. Green, Emmanuel College Library, Franklin Springs, GA
— Ravonne A. Green, Emmanuel College Library, Franklin Springs, GA
— Ravonne A. Green, Emmanuel College Library, Franklin Springs, GA
— Ravonne A. Green, Emmanuel College Library, Franklin Springs, GA
— Ravonne A. Green, Emmanuel College Library, Franklin Springs, GA
NY Times Book Review
A bold, unnerving tour de force.
From the Publisher
“A bold, unnerving tour de force . . . brilliantly suggestive and knowing.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Nadine Gordimer has given us a work of bleak beauty and enormous force.”The Washington Post Book World


“Gordimer has taken South Africa's tragedy and laid the truth of it in our laps. The story she tells is lucid and achingly alive.”—The Boston Sunday Globe


"The moral urgency that informs Nadine Gordimer's novels and stories endows them with a virtue distinct from their literary merits. Her subject is the agony of South Africa; her theme, the corruption that leads *Bigoted rulers, but its reformers as well . . . A brave writer, she has. over the decades and at some risk to herself, combined a layered moral vision with an acute apprehension of how people react to a cruel and self-destructive society." —Newsweek


"A thoughtful, poised, quietly poignant novel that... recognizes the value and cost of political commitment."—The Christian Science Monitor


"Although all of Gordimer's novels are written from a political point of view—as an opponent of apartheid and all its work—her intelligence is too subtle, her imagination too exact, to allow her to produce a merely political novel . . . My Son's Story maintains the finest balance of sympathies."—The Independent (London)

"The turmoil in South Africa leaves no member of a decorous colored family untouched, as the schoolmaster husband turns activist and lover. Gordimer is perceptive, unflinching, and sympathetic"—The Observer (London)


"If one were never to read any other literature about South Africa, Gordimer's work should be enough. For more than thirty years she has delineated each shift and change in the system in [her] novels and short stories that intertwine the personal with the political. As a literary keeper of records, she has no peer."—The Sunday Times (London)


“Beautifully felt, both in its anger and its compassion. It is so rich as to make praise superfluous, so vital and disturbing as to send us . . . back into the world, with a heightened sense of what life in it might mean.”USA Today


"A remarkable novel—tough, unsentimental, moving in the extreme."The Daily Mail (London)


"A bleak, powerful novel of issues . . . This book radiates strength, personality, intelligence, and commitment."—The Sunday Telegraph (London)


''My Son's Story, about a colored South African family ravaged by the father's affair with a white human rights advocate, probes with breathtaking power and precision the complexities of 'love, love/hate,' and the interplay of public and private reality. . . . Gordimer retains perfect control over her material, rendering her characters' shifting perspectives with truly extraordinary empathy and discernment. Highly recommended."—Library Journal


"Gordimer delivers her most perceptive and powerful novel in years. The story of a man's evolution as a political activist and the toll it takes on his family and on him, it is also a picture of a marriage and of an extramarital affair, set against a backdrop of daily life in segregated South Africa, even as the winds of change begin to blow. The novel is eloquent in its understated prose and anguished understanding of moral complexities."—Publishers Weekly

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My Son's Story

By Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1990 Felix Licensing BV
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70756-9


How did I find out?

I was deceiving him.

November. I was on study leave—for two weeks before the exams pupils in the senior classes were allowed to stay home to prepare themselves. I would say I was going to work with a friend at a friend's house, and then I'd slip off to a cinema. Cinemas had been open to us only a year or so; it was a double freedom I took: to bunk study and to sit in the maroon nylon velvet seat of a cinema in a suburb where whites live. My father was not well off but my parents wanted my sister and me to have a youth less stunted by the limits of an empty pocket than they had had, and my pocket-money was more generous than their precarious position, at the time, warranted. So I was in the foyer waiting to get into a five o'clock performance at one of the cinemas in a new complex and my father and a woman came out of the earlier performance in another.

There was my father; the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me. We stood there while other people crossed our line of vision. Then he came towards me with her in the dazed way people emerge from the dark of a cinema to daylight.

He said, You remember Hannah, don't you—

And she prompted with a twitching smile to draw my gaze from him—for I was concentrating on him the great rush of questions, answers, realizations, credulity and dismay which stiffened my cheeks and gave the sensation of cold water rising up my neck—she prompted, Hannah Plowman, of course we know each other.

I said, Hullo. He drew it from me; we were back again in our little house across the veld from Benoni and I was being urged to overcome the surly shyness of a six-year-old presented with an aunt or cousin. What are you going to see? he said. While he spoke to me he drew back as if I might smell her on him. I didn't know. They managed to smile, almost laugh, almost make the exchange commonplace. But it was so: the title of the film I had planned to see was already banished from my mind, as this meeting would have to be, ground away under my heel, buried along with it. The Bertolucci—an Italian film—it's very good, he said, delicately avoiding the implications of the natural prefix, 'We thought ...' She nodded enthusiastically. That's the one to see, Will, he was saying. And the voice was an echo from another life, where he was my father giving me his usual measured, modest advice. Then he signalled a go-along-and-enjoy-yourself gesture, she murmured politely, and they left me as measuredly as they had approached. I watched their backs so I would believe it really had happened; that woman with her bare pink bottle-calves and clumsy sandals below the cotton outfit composed of a confusion of styles from different peasant cultures, him in his one good jacket that I had taken to the dry-cleaner for him many times, holding the shape of his shoulders folded back over my arm. Then I ran from the cinema foyer, my vision confined straight ahead like a blinkered horse so that I wouldn't see which way they were going, and I took a bus home, home, home where I shut myself up in my room, safe among familiar schoolbooks.

He was a schoolteacher in one of the towns that had grown up long ago along the reef of gold-bearing rock east of the city—Johannesburg. Where his great-grandfather or grandfather had come from nobody had recorded—the rough hands of those generations did not write letters or keep notes; bricklayers and carpenters, the only documentation of their lives was their work-papers and the various, much-folded slips entitling them to be employed in the town and to live in the area, outside the town, designated by the municipality for their kind. He thought his great-grandfather might have come from the diamond diggings in Kimberley; a photograph had survived while oral family history had gone to the grave. Among a work gang holding sieves of the kind used in panning for alluvial diamonds, there stood beside the white overseer a toothless grinning face with a family resemblance. No identification on the back of the photograph.

The schoolteacher's own father, acquiring one of the traditional trades of the maternal, Cape Town side of the family, had set up in a garage as an upholsterer. There was no car; his sonny-boy bounced instead on the exposed springs of chairs and sofas, and had lint in his curls. The boy was the first in the family to leave earth, cement, wood and kapok behind and take up the pen and book. He was the first to complete the full years of schooling. Sonny became a teacher. He was the pride of the old people and the generic diminutive by which they had celebrated him as the son, the first-born male, was to stay with him in the changing identities a man passes through, for the rest of his life.

He taught in the same school, earning regular increments for service and improving his position by ability and gradual seniority during the years when he married his wife, Aila, and their two children, a girl followed by a boy, were born. The girl, like her father, having been fondly welcomed as the baby, kept the generic and continued to be called Baby, would never be known as anything else, through all the circumstances of her life. The boy was Will, diminutive of William. He was named for Shakespeare, whose works, in a cheap complete edition bound in fake leather, stood in the glass-fronted bookcase in the small sitting-room and were no mere ornamental pretensions to culture. Sonny read and reread them with devotion; although the gilt lettering had been eaten away by fishmoth, and the volume he wanted had to be selected blindly, his hand always went straight to it.

The pride the old people took in him was not just the snobbery of the poor and uneducated, that rejoices in claiming one who has moved up out of their class, and which, although their hubris hides this aspect from them, contains also, always, the inevitability of sorrow: his desertion. The pride came from an instinct, like the water-diviner's for the pull of his twig, for Sonny's distinction. And this in spite of the fact that he had turned out darker– rather than lighter-skinned than the rest of the family—something that, normally, might have down-graded him among them. Everything he was and did evidenced distinction. The definitive face that begins to emerge with adolescence was long, slender, and tenderly responsive beneath thick-browed, great black eyes ringed with dark skin as if in physical manifestation of deep thought. Even the hands that emerged from the pudgy paws of early childhood were at once extraordinary, the fingers growing very long in proportion to the curve of the palm, nervous in their alert touch and deftness, yet bestowing calm when resting in handshake or as a caress. It was proper, it was his right in the fitness of all he did and attracted to him, that he should marry a girl who seemed to have been set apart, for him. Not that it was an arranged marriage in what had been the custom of her ancestors and still lingered among her family, although the religion that went with it had been neglected or abandoned by the younger generation. Aila was so quiet it was irritably felt by others that her beauty was undeserved. Wasted; boys, men did not know what to say to her that would draw a response. Her coiled river of shining black hair looked as if it would never flow down for one of them. It was not possible to have thoughts about what her small body was like under her clothes. Her lovely lips and teeth formed a smile that greeted a man exactly as it did an old woman or a child; she did not seem to understand what the approach of a man was telling her.

Sonny was the one who knew what it was she rejected in the only way possible for someone like her: by silence. She spoke, with Sonny; when he came to see her for the first time, having been introduced a few days before by one of her brothers (the correct way to approach a girl, in her kind of family), they seemed to take up a conversation that had already begun, with him, in her silence among others. They mistook her gentleness for disdain; perhaps he mistook it, too, in another way, taking the gentleness for what it appeared to be instead of the strength of will it softly gloved. No-one knows the reserves that remain even in the most profound understanding between a man and woman. Aila had not known how to flirt, had never given a moment's attention to the thought of any other man as the singular being, lifelong friend and lover, a 'husband' meant for her; if she gave Sonny everything else of herself, it would have been worth less if she had not kept to herself some fibre of personality as a separate identity. Perhaps without his knowing what the element was, it was that which added to their love for each other his particular, unspoken respect for her—a sacred quality outside the subjectivity of passion and affection.

There was passion and affection. They married after a formal engagement—he even bought her a ring with a chip of diamond—and were not lovers until they were husband and wife. They never used endearments in public or displayed the behaviour expected of people to prove they are in love with one another, but there was a real body under her clothes, a lovely body with all its features there for him: the dark nipples like grapes in his mouth, the smooth belly with its tiny well of navel, her entry satiny within as the material of the nightgown her mother had provided for her bridal 'bottom drawer'. All their long dreamy talks about their lives before they knew each other, their life as they were going to make it together, ended with him almost stealthily moving into her, and the pleasure that came to them both always as if a surprise. They were greatly moved, each by the other. The emotion expressed itself in sensitivity, telepathy. They arrived, often without discussion, at the same decisions affecting their lives; and in discussion, in daily responses, a way they wanted to live timidly evolved between them. Domestically they adjusted to one another as cats curl up in accommodation before a fire.

They decided to have children, but not more than two. The fecklessly begotten families of the poor, from which they came, were not for them. Yet they did not plan to privilege these children beyond the decencies of opportunity and healthy, happy growth they believed were a child's right. One of the early sweet intimacies between them was that both had rejected any religious beliefs, although to please the old people she occasionally followed public rituals. They found that for them both the meaning of life seemed to be contained, if mysteriously, in living useful lives. They knew what that was not: not living only for oneself, or one's children, or the clan of relatives. They were not sure what it was; not yet. Only that it had to do with responsibility to a community; and that could only mean the community to which they were confined, to which they belonged because the law told them so, in the first place, and that to which the attachments and dependencies of daily life and the shared concerns that came from living within it, made them belong, of themselves.

Sonny felt his way was obviously through a special responsibility to the children in the school: it opened out from conscientiousness in teaching his own classes to an accountability for the welfare of all the children at the school. He saw the need to bring together the school and the community in which it performed an isolated function—education as a luxury, a privilege apart from the survival preoccupations of the parents. He bought books that kept him from Shakespeare. He read them over and over in order to grasp and adapt the theory that recognized social education of the community, the parents and relatives and neighbours of the pupils, as part of a school's function. He started a parent-teacher association and an advisory service for parents, collected money for special equipment for handicapped children, took groups of senior boys and girls to do repairs in the yard rooms of pensioners. What else might he do? For the uplift of the community he enterprisingly approached the Rotary Club and Lions' Club in the white town with respectful requests that they might graciously send their doctors, lawyers, and members of amateur theatre and music groups to lecture or perform in the school hall.

It was not so easy to find a way for Aila. There she was, in the watchful quiet of her readiness. She, too, had matriculated, but she had married from the close female domain of her parents' home at eighteen, and never worked in the world. He did not want a bed-and-board wife and she wanted to become what he wanted, so she took a secretarial course and studied psychology by correspondence as preparation for a useful working life. His poor salary was reason enough for her to need to earn; but that was not their primary concern. While she was pregnant with their first child they spent the evenings over her material from the correspondence college, he helping her with her assignments. When Baby was born, the young mother would sit at her books between feeds and household tasks, and the young father would be on the other side of the table, correcting his pupils' papers. He read out howlers to her and they softly laughed together, parenthetic to their concentration; sometimes Baby interrupted them with colic cries, sometimes his long-fingered caress on his wife's neck, across the table, or the touch of her hand placed momentarily over his, led to love-making.

They bought their furniture on hire purchase. On Saturday mornings went by bus and later in the car they had saved for, to shop in town. Baby was dressed up in white frill-topped socks and Will had his safari suit with long pants, a miniature of his father's Saturday outfit. Sonny and Aila carried their week's supply of groceries in the plastic bags whose O.K. Bazaars logo identified families like them everywhere in the streets, wage earners who had to buy in the cheapest store, with the weekly indulgence of ice-cream cones or peanuts for the kids and the luxury of queueing up for weekend beers on the side of the liquor stores segregated from where white people were served. Like some sudden growth pushing up after rain, these people appeared in the town on Saturdays, covering the streets with trailing children and window-gazing men and women studying the advertised down-payments on bedroom 'schemes' and lounge 'suites' named to bring to cramped and crumbling hovels the dimensions of palaces, 'Granada', 'Versailles'. During the week the throng vanished, obediently banished back to the areas set aside for them outside the town. The workers were in the factories, the schoolteacher went to his designated school; men, women, children—everyone kept to the daily pathways worn within that circumscribed area. In the town, the lawyer and estate agents and municipal officials moved unjostled about streets expanded, spacious, swept of the detritus of Saturday's common usage. A white town.

Sonny and his wife did not covet 'Granada' or 'Versailles'; with an understanding of Shakespeare there comes a release from the gullibility that makes you prey to the great shopkeeper who runs the world, and would sell you cheap to illusion. (False values—but that was what he was to call them only later.) Yet the couple were not set apart in any outward way from the crowd of their kind who came into the town every Saturday to buy from the white people. With their children by the hand, they passed the town's two cinemas without particular awareness that they had never entered, could not enter. When Sonny's family was hungry he bought chips from the Greek's shop and he and Aila carefully put the crumpled paper, wet with vinegar, into the municipal trash baskets when the children had finished eating as they walked; the Greek had a few tables set out with flyspotted artificial flowers and tomato sauce bottles, at which people could be served, but not this family. If—as always—the children needed to go to the lavatory, the parents trotted them off down to the railway station, where there were the only toilets provided for their kind, although the department store had a cloakroom for the use of other customers. As some lordly wild animal marks the boundaries of his hunting and mating ground which no other may cross, it was as if the municipality left some warning odour, scent of immutable authority, where the Saturday people were not to transgress. And they read the scent; they recognized it always, it had always been there. There was no need for notices spelling it out; there were only a few of these in the town, on public benches, for example. There was none at the library; but no-one would have pretended not to know what there was to know about that building from which the scent came, disguised this time as the smell of books, the cool must of yellowing paper, scuffed leather, and the woodfragrance absorbed from the shelves where they were held, as brandy takes flavour from the casks in which it matures.

The lover of Shakespeare never had the right to enter the municipal library and so did not so much as think about it while white people came out before him with books under their arms; he did not recognize what the building represented for him, with its municipal coat of arms and motto above the pillared entrance: CARPE DIEM.


Excerpted from My Son's Story by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 1990 Felix Licensing BV. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fourteen novels, nine volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in a small South African town. Her first book, a collection of stories, was published when she was in her early twenties. Her ten books of stories include Something Out There (1984), and Jump and Other Stories (1991). Her novels include The Lying Days (1953), A World of Strangers (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), A Guest of Honour (1971), The Conservationist (1975), Burger's Daughter (1979), July's People (1981), A Sport of Nature (1987), My Son's Story (1990), None to Accompany Me (1994), The House Gun (1998), The Pickup (2001), Get a Life (2005), and No Time Like the Present (2012). A World of Strangers, The Late Bourgeois World, and Burger's Daughter were originally banned in South Africa. She published three books of literary and political essays: The Essential Gesture (1988); Writing and Being (1995), the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures she gave at Harvard in 1994; and Living in Hope and History (1999).

Ms. Gordimer was a vice president of PEN International and an executive member of the Congress of South African Writers. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain and an honorary member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also a Commandeur de'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France). She held fourteen honorary degrees from universities including Harvard, Yale, Smith College, the New School for Social Research, City College of New York, the University of Leuven in Belgium, Oxford University, and Cambridge University.

Ms. Gordimer won numerous literary awards, including the Booker Prize for The Conservationist, both internationally and in South Africa.

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