Picks and Pans Review: January Sun

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Richard Stengel

Subtitled One Day, Three Lives, a South African Town, Stengel's book is a documentary study of apartheid, engrossing and novelistic in tone. The town is Brits, a farming community in the Transvaal, an hour's drive from Pretoria. The lives are those of black taxi driver Marshall Buys, known as Life; white Afrikaner Ronald de la Rey, a successful veterinarian; and Jaiprakash (Jai) Bhula, a young Indian shopkeeper.

Since South African law mandates residential areas by race—white, black, Coloured ("mixed race"), Indian/Asian—Life resides in Oukasie, the black township of north Brits, de la Rey in the white area to the south, Jai Bhula in Primindia, the Indian district. Stengel follows the men—at work, at play, with friends and family—for one ordinary day. They never meet, but their lives are inevitably linked—by their homeland's history, by the turbulent forces reshaping South Africa, by the demands of the outside world.

This is apartheid away from headlines, angry crowds and phalanxes of armed policemen. Stengel's three men are everyday civilians whose voices reveal South Africa in different ways. De la Rey, fearing for the future of the white minority—"Perhaps we are an endangered species, eh?"—extrapolates from his experience as a cattle eugenicist: "There are two basic groups of cattle.... If you're crossbreeding between these two main groups, you don't get what we call hybrid vigor.... You don't get improvement with black and white."

And here is Life, joining black friends to view a government-banned film on the then still imprisoned Nelson Mandela: "But you know we have always lived in a state of apprehensiveness.... The white man forces us to live in a certain way and then tells the world, 'look at the way they live.' "

Jai Bhula muses upon the creators of apartheid: "The Afrikaner is a strange race. There is some intangible, undefinable quality that they all seem to have. Skelm—it's a kind of dull-witted shrewdness.... If they really believed they were better, would it be necessary to create laws guaranteeing social, monetary, and political superiority?"

This is Stengel's first book, a strong debut by an ex-Rhodes scholar who is a TIME contributor. If January Sun lacks a novel's dramatic tension, within the confines of its journalism we meet likable, fully formed characters. Stengel's afterword provides a grim update on one of the principals, and the news comes like a stab to the heart. (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)

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