Picks and Pans Review: A Sport of Nature

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Nadine Gordimer

The title character in this strong and sweeping novel, which spans four decades of life in South Africa, is Hillela Capran. Early on, her mother disappears into a nightclub and another life. When her father takes up with another woman, Hillela goes to live first with her mother's sister Olga and then with her Aunt Pauline. Olga is married to a wealthy man. Proper manners and dressing stylishly are important. Pauline is married to an activist lawyer; she sends their son to a school where there are black students, and she works to help blacks change white rule. No one quite knows what to do with Hillela, who grows up sensual, willful and capable—far more than any of the others—of making her way in a world that, as this book makes clear, has gone mad. Hillela's cousin winds up in prison, and it is he who writes to her, "If over hundreds of years you distort law and order as repression, you get frenzy. If you won't attempt to do justice, you cut morality, human feeling, pity—you cut the heart out." One complaint: Gordimer has chosen to use dashes instead of quotation marks, and the result is occasional confusion between dialogue and narrative and an annoying, recurring problem in figuring out which character is doing the talking. That aside, this author of eight other novels and eight books of short stories continues to be South Africa's most accomplished portrayer of life in that violent land. This fictional account is all the more important because with censorship restrictions news about South Africa and its continuing torment has all but vanished. Gordimer takes us there. She suggests that only people like Hillela, shrewd and perceptive and infinitely adaptable, can survive the insanity. The story is utterly convincing. (Knopf, $18.95)

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