Well, I didn’t think it could happen but it finally did. I shouldn’t feel so disappointed about this but I do. I was prepared to love all of Nadine Gordimer’s work wholeheartedly. And its not that Burger’s Daughter is bad – on the contrary, it’s a rich story with a lot of very interesting questions. And there are those moments of pure Gordimer – exquisite writing with just the right reflection or description. But as a whole, in its movement through and from each scene to scene, it just kind of got lost in itself along the way.
The novel has three distinct parts and if I explain what they are to any extent, I will give the story away. I wanted very much for these three parts to work together – and I suppose that on the surface they do. They represent three distinct phases of Rosa Burger’s self-actualization. But instead of leading one to the other, they felt more like images taped together a bit awkwardly at the seams. There was a moment in the middle of Part II that I thought Gordimer had changed course for an entirely different story and I was ready to feel cheated or at the very least confused. An act of almost-believable coincidence puts the story back on track and eventually it traipses forward to an ending which felt…well, I suppose it felt okay.
It must be difficult when writing fiction with a political purpose to keep your eye fixed firmly on storytelling. There were moments when certain characters got far too involved in making speeches and I admit I started reading diagonally. If Gordimer is anything, she is thorough. I don’t doubt that when politically engaged people get together their meetings are everything she portrays them to be – intricate, involved, passionate. But to read through their every detail is frustrating for me – the reader – because I want to stay focused on a character I have come to appreciate or worry about. I don’t want Marxist or any other theory explained to me or examined ad nauseum by characters who will leave the story as quickly as they came in.
I mentioned in my review of her sixth novel, The Conservationist, that Gordimer uses a particular technique of having the main character speak to another character (or characters) in their mind. A kind of imaginary conversation which gives the main character the right to explain himself, complain, or defend himself. In The Conservationist this device was a source of some of the most moving passages of the entire book. In Burger’s Daughter she uses the very same stylistic device, but at first I found it horribly distracting. The person to whom Rosa addresses her thoughts is an ex-lover – someone the reader never meets on the page. It was frustrating never having that person in the flesh – just a construct of Rosa’s mind. In Part II, she switches to “thinking at” her father’s first wife, the woman she is staying with in France. I don’t think it works particularly well in that section either, but not for the same reasons. More because all of Part II seems disjointed and apathetic until we reach the coincidence I mention above. But then all of a sudden, in Part III, I saw why Gordimer continued to use the device. Suddenly Rosa is addressing her dead father. And I think this was the whole point. Her transformation is complete and she can safely begin a conversation she has been longing to have but never felt confident enough to do.
I won’t put Burger’s Daughter on my list of favorites but as always I’m glad to have read it. Her eighth novel, July’s People, is one I have already read and enjoyed. It’s short so I think I will re-read it before moving on.