“People like Ourselves” by the South African novelist Pamela Jooste is both engaging, but also ever so slightly disappointing at the end.
Perhaps it’s because I lived in Johannesburg for several very happy years, in a gated community that is featured in the novel, that I felt an instant connection to the world described.
In fact, excitingly, the writer even mentions my former street, so there was an immediate feeling of engagement and familiarity about this well-written book.
Johannesburg in the early years of the “new” South Africa still runs on traditional lines.
The rich, white South Africans live in their elegant homes in the northern suburbs, attended to by an army of black staff. Although cautiously aware of the need for reform, and new attitudes, and new language – for instance you no longer refer to your maid as a maid, but rather as a house worker – old habits otherwise die hard.
We follow the closely inter-connected lives of Gus and Caroline, Julia and Douglas, all born into the wealthy upper crust of Johannesburg society. Their mothers and mothers-in-law are friends, they all frequent the same parties, they are expected to inter-marry, and usually they do.
And when they don’t, as Douglas did in his first, frowned-upon marriage to the rebellious young English woman Rosalie, just look how things turn out. She runs away with another man, gets involved in politics, but now, thank goodness is far away, back in London.
And so the privileged of Jo’burg live out their middle-aged lives, worrying about rebellious children, and loveless marriages, with financial woes crowding ever closer.
Plus, of course, there is the new South Africa to deal with.
The new order of things.
The whites may think they are reaching out to their fellow – read black – compatriots, but the feeling is hardy reciprocated.
Take trusty old Gladstone, whose name is absolutely not Gladstone, but that’s what his white employers think he is called.
Then there is the canny, ambitious small-time actress in TV soap operas, whom we see through the eyes of her young daughter, Tula. Her mother, who is absent from her life most of the time, is categorical about the rules in the new South Africa, contemptuous of the way her own mother treats her white employers :
“Do I look to you like I was born to know anything about “back gate,” “servants’ entrance” kind of rubbish ? No more “master” and “madam” and “yes, sir” and “thank you, miss.”
The book weaves all the varied stories together skillfully, shifting from one character and view point to another, not only within Johannesburg, but also to and from London, where Rosalie is heading inexorably towards her own nightmare.
The Jo’burg parts of the novel are so well written, finely attuned to every verbal and social nuance, but the London chapters are not quite as convincing. We are not as interested in the minor English characters as we are in their African counterparts.
The end of this very enjoyable novel comes upon us rather abruptly, with several loose ends untied.
I, for one, could have done with many more chapters, to finish off the many stories in as leisurely a way as they started.
“People like Ourselves” is published by Black Swan, and the paperback retails for £6.99 or Can $19.95.
You can order the book now by clicking on the link below.