Almost the only characters of any depth are Claudia and Harald Lindgard, an older upper-middle-class liberal white couple living, I assume, in Johannesburg, although the city is never mentioned by name. The novel is set in the 1990’s, just after De Clerc has left office and the nation is stumbling to find its way in a new order.
Claudia and Harald are disturbed in their gated complex one night by a friend of their son Duncan who comes to report a horrible event. Duncan has been living in a compound in a separate house from three gay men. One of them has been murdered, and Duncan has been arrested for it.
The story is mostly about the effect this event has on the couple’s marriage. At first very close, they are driven apart almost immediately. They know nothing about what happened, and Duncan isn’t talking. Eventually they learn from Duncan’s advocate, Hamilton Motsamai, that Duncan did indeed shoot Carl Jesperson after finding him having sex with Duncan’s girlfriend Natalie.
There is much more to the story, but it comes out slowly. And Gordimer’s writing style is so abrupt and choppy, her viewpoint so removed and analytical, that the novel seems chilling. This impression is heightened by the tendency to use pronouns or other nouns instead of names for the other characters, especially for Natalie, who is referred to as “the girl,” and the victim, who is referred to as “he” or “him.” Obviously, since the novel is from the point of view of the couple, this naming is a distancing technique to separate the parents from the victim and the person they consider the instigator, but the overall effect is to also distance the reader. I have no frame of reference to know if this writing style is typical of Gordimer or not.
Of course, there are other, more political points to the novel. Although viewing themselves as liberals, Claudia and Harald are shaken to find how biased they are. For example, they wonder at first about the competency of Duncan’s advocate just because of Motsamai’s color. Racial and stereotypical comments permeate the book. It is clearly an issue that is on everyone’s mind.
Then again, the presence of the gun is an important issue. In an article about the novel in The New York Times, a statistic was quoted that after the violent and abusive regime of De Clerc ended and Mandela came into power, official statistics of violence in South Africa increased tenfold. The young men in the compound had bought the gun to protect themselves in case someone broke in. If it hadn’t been sitting there on the table, no one would have been killed. That’s a point that we in the states, with our own issues, should pay attention to.