Rereading Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun over the weekend confirmed to me that it will remain one of my all-time favorites. I think this was the third Gordimer novel I ever read and I sought it out because I had so enjoyed the first two. It is her twelfth novel and was published in 1998, when she was 75 years old. And yet it is a novel with incredible insight into contemporary problems of violence and sexual concerns.
In 2006, I wrote this about the novel:
In The House Gun Gordimer literally unstitches the seams holding together the lives of her main characters, Claudia and Harald, as they cope with the reality that their only child, their son, has committed a murder. Part One begins with the coy words, Something terrible happened but this is not yet Harald and Claudia’s “terrible”, it is only the news, the busy hum of everyday violence the couple are watching on TV one evening. But then within a paragraph, that hum infiltrates their living room. A messenger arrives. Their lives will never be the same.
This dichotomy between the violence “out there” and the violence “within” soon becomes one of the central sources of the novel’s power. Harald and Claudia have lived relatively quiet and happy lives, not so much oblivious to the violence in their society, but discreetly distant from it. They are quick to point out that they didn’t agree with the apartheid system but neither did they risk their life and security fighting against it. Claudia is a doctor and an atheist, while Harald is the director of an insurance company and a contemplative Christian. They are both politically liberal, in theory supportive of equality but yet admittedly still enmeshed in the mores dictated by an earlier cultural system. The unfathomable act committed by their son soon becomes their only point of reference and each aspect of their life must pass through its prism as they try to understand the unthinkable.
I would say The House Gun has two main preoccupations – one is Gordimer’s traditional dissection of the legacy of apartheid on the South African pysche (from both sides of the color barrier) but the other takes up the issue of longstanding violence within a community and how that poison, for lack of a better word, seeps into everything. With an incredible amount of sympathy, Gordimer presents Harald and Claudia’s son Duncan as someone who can’t help having assimilated that violence (which is both sexual and physical) because, in essence, everyone in the entire culture has had to do the same. The title emphasizes this fact – the group of young people living with Duncan has this “house gun”, an object of incredible violence that everyone treats as no big deal.
The novel is one of Gordimer’s most compelling narratives, in the traditional sense, in that the story literally keeps you on the edge of your seat. For those of you a bit shy of Gordimer’s sometimes roundabout narrative style, this would be an excellent book to start with. It is simply packed with her discerning prose and vivid descriptions but also with a story that grips you right from the beginning.