‘Bitter Fruit’ by Achmat Dangor

Bitter_Fruit_(Dangor_novel)Set in 1998 South Africa, just a few years after the end of apartheid and majority rule came into force, Bitter Fruit is a dense, harrowing drama of a disintegrating middle-class ‘coloured’ family. A chance sighting of former security policeman, Lieutenant Du Boise, stirs bitter memories of 20 years prior that have a devastating impact on the Ali family.

A cynical, embittered Silas Ali, approaching 50, a former ANC activist, now liaises between the Minister of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His wife, Lydia, ten years younger, is a nurse who, during the course of the novel, establishes her independence by becoming a significant player in the research of HIV transmission. Their highly intelligent, strikingly beautiful but increasingly troubled son, Mikey/Michael, loses his way, drops out of university and becomes involved with Muslim activists.

The marriage between Silas and Lydia is increasingly built on false premise – and the sighting of Du Boise brings it to a head: Lydia’s violent rape at the hands of the security forces, Silas’ inability to acknowledge or address events of that night. But there’s more, so much more, all of which goes unsaid and it is this bitter fruit that becomes so unbearable, open wounds so deep that the two have been in a state of limbo for 20 years.

Rape, incest, murder, alcoholism, divorce – the fruits of apartheid – past and present all feature in Bitter Fruit.

Through a series of incredibly well-drawn characters (the Ali family, Lydia’s extended family, friends and colleagues), we are provided with a powerful insight into the new South Africa and the “grey, shadowy morality” of an ANC government “bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise”. And the political, cultural and religious conflicts that inevitably impact.

Yet it is the evolving family drama that remains centre stage throughout Bitter Fruit in spite of the political context – and it is the stronger for it. Mikey/Michael is a child of the new South Africa and he reflects on the failings of his parents’ generation. Silas has to come to terms with the new order – a place where elevated involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle has been replaced by a sense of ordinariness. And Lydia must face her past in order to move forward.

But in the same way family friend Julian accepts his wife Val leaving him and embraces his homosexuality (no bitter fruit there), the Alis need to look to change as Mandela looks to hand over the responsibility of power – in with the new, out with the old. Silas is soon likely to be out of a job – as are his colleagues Kate and Alec. Mikey/Michael leaves behind the sexual conquests of older, white women and looks to finding a personal resolution at the Griffith Street Mosque and the Sufis.

Bitter Fruit is a challenging read. But it is also an incredibly rewarding one. Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink etc have provided the voices of white South African dissension, but Dangor’s novel helps provide a different perspective. The characters in Bitter Fruit ensure no one singular voice is presented, that a multifaceted account is provided, reflecting a modern day South Africa.

And, growing up in one of the ‘coloured’ townships of Johannesburg, witnessing first hand the violence, despair and injustice of an apartheid state before rising, via ANC activism, to head the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor’s voice can be assumed to be genuine and authentic.

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize but lost out to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollinghurst

hollinghurstDivided into three sections, The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, is a beautifully written but pompous novel of privilege, hypocrisy, loneliness and belonging.

Having recently graduated from Oxford, the good looking, middle class gay Nick Guest moves into the large, rambling Notting Hill home of the Feddens. Having befriended (and idolised) Toby Fedden at Oxford, Nick finds himself as a post-graduate at University College London and a lodger in the home of the new, highly ambitious MP, Gerald Fedden and his wife, Rachel, a wealthy heiress.

It’s 1983, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher have been returned to power with an increased majority and a new breed of politician sits in Parliament – ruthless and driven with the financial acumen of a banker or investor. Thrilling to Nick, Gerald Fedden epitomises this new approach.

But in spite of having the freedom of their home, Nick never really belongs. Toby is rarely there and when he is, somewhat distant. Nick finds himself drawn more and more to the troubled younger sister, Catherine (Cat), who is bipolar. It is to her he talks of his (fictional) Oxford sexual proclivities. It is to her he talks of his (factual) adventures with Leo, a man he meets through a Lonely Hearts advert. But Nick never feels confident or secure enough to introduce Leo (who is a few years older and black) to the Feddens and their home.

Part two of The Line of Beauty moves us forward three smug years. Nick remains in the Notting Hill home, but Leo is now history. Instead, he has taken up with the incredibly wealthy Wani Ouradi, an Oxford contemporary and the son of a rich Lebanese businessman. Ostensibly employed by Wani as consulting editor and artistic advisor to his company, 1986 is one of closeted excess – drugs, sex, alcohol: hedonistic indulgence taken to its limits.

The bubble bursts in part three. Just a year later and Wani is dying from AIDS. Nick has also discovered Leo died a few months earlier. A media scandal caused by the discovery of an affair between Gerald and Penny, his parliamentary secretary, and the link between him and Wani results in Nick being forced to move out of the Notting Hill house.

It’s a masterful book – one of many from Hollinghurst. His prose is beautiful. But it is also annoying – a florid, overtly descriptive style that can, at times, take forever to get to the point. The result is an overlong commentary of the indulgences and materialism of 1980s Thatcherite Britain.

But The Line of Beauty is no agit-prop novel or deep political analysis. That’s not Hollinghurst’s style. Instead, through surface glamour and an aura of Brideshead Revisited revisited, The Line of Beauty is the patina that covers the self-serving hypocrisy of privilege and Thatcherism.

Whether it be a line of cocaine, the double ‘S’ of the ogee curve or the curve of a man’s lower back, The Line of Beauty captures a time and place. From a naïve, relatively privileged Oxford graduate, Nick becomes someone who is at least aware of his surrounds. The stark reality for him, gay and poor amidst the materialistic and generally homophobic upper echelons of London society, is not promising. And punctuated throughout is the emerging threat of AIDS.