I was in a bit of a reading slump, so I turned to some “best books of the 20th century” lists for inspiration. I found a list that had a decent amount of variety (meaning, not all of the authors on it were European or American white men), looked up a few books that caught my interest, and decided to try Burger’s Daughter, by Nadine Gordimer. Gordimer, a white South African woman, has won the Nobel Prize in literature, so I had high hopes for her work. The book is a novel that takes place in the 1970s (which is also when it was written, so it was written as a contemporary story) and focuses on the daughter of anti-apartheid activists. While there was certainly a strong anti-apartheid message in the book, the story is really ultimately about the daughter finding herself. Having grown up living and breathing the perspectives of the anti-apartheid work, the main character, Rosa, finds herself a bit adrift after both her parents have died and she is “free”. I do not want to say more about what happens as the plot unveils slowly through-out the book and is important to the experience of reading it.
Unfortunately, I did not find Burger’s Daughter as engaging or compelling as I had hoped. For one thing, I found it rather difficult to read, as the style of writing is quite different from what I am used to. It switched between the third person and the first person, and when in the first person it was as if the main character, Rosa, was addressing someone she knew (a different someone in each of the three parts of the book). Initially the story was also quite non-linear, although eventually it did become linear. However, the narrative flow was still difficult to follow – from one section to the next there was little indication of how much time had passed and I found these jumps from scene to scene rather jarring. The writing also conveyed a sense of detachment that prevented me as the reader from ever really feeling connected to the characters. I have no doubt that all of these stylistic aspects are completely intentional on the author’s part, and that she chose them to convey her themes the way she wanted, but I found that they made the book more difficult to read and less memorable. A week after finishing it, the book already felt quite distant in my mind.
There were two other aspects of the book that made it more difficult for me as an American to read. The first is that in the edition I read the dialogue is typeset European-style, using dashes instead of double quotes to offset spoken sentences. I imagine that if I were used to this style I would not find it distracting, but since I am not used to it I found the dialogue more difficult to follow and I think it contributed to my sense of distance from the characters.
The final thing that contributed to the book being difficult for me is simply the fact that the book is firmly South African. This is of course not a negative thing – the author is South African, and the setting and context are as natural to her as the American setting is to me. She did not write the book targeting a non-South African audience, so references and setting are simply assumed as in most American books. I felt distinctly the outsider and it made me slightly uncomfortable. Let me be clear, however: I think this is a good thing and it is one reason I chose to read this book and intend to read other books by and for non-Americans. It is broadening in a way that reading, say, travel writing, never will be. I find it to be a valuable reminder of the diversity of humanity and cultures to have the experience of being the outsider simply by virtue of the fact that I was not the target audience of a writer.
Overall, my reaction to Burger’s Daughter is quite mixed. I am not sure if I liked it or not. I does have some interesting messages and themes, but I do not feel compelled by it. I did not feel captivated by its world or find myself still living in it in my head after finishing it. However, I appreciated the experience of reading a book by someone for a different country and culture and feel that I got a good taste of what South Africa in the 1970s was like for a certain segment of the population. I also found that every once in a while a passage stood out that contained a gem of truth and insight.