It’s taken me a while to write a review of this book – I think I love it so much my review can’t possibly live up to the book. For a description of the book’s plot and relevant reader comments, check out amazon.co.uk (not .com). Essentially, Gillian Slovo is the daughter of two white anti-apartheid activists, and Gillian and her sisters took a backseat to their parents’ political activism while they were growing up. Gillian traces the story of their parents’ political activities with extensive research and weaves in her own personal experiences.
Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country gets top marks from me on being a fascinating book, as well as being a well-crafted story. Slovo’s writing is wonderful – light, clear, vivid. She weaves a political history – and an amazing amount of research – with her own life story very effectively. I admire many of the writing techniques she uses, from her deft use of research to her easy movement through time.
Relating to my own writing, Slovo’s way of moving through time really excites me, for it gives me permission (and a method) to do so in my own writing. Slovo sticks to a general chronology, but she will travel forward and backward through time with ease as is relevant to the theme she’s discussing. There are three sections: 1) 1982 when her mother was politically assassinated; 2) the backstory of their lives up until that point; 3) the story after her mother’s assassination (including the fall of apartheid and Slovo’s search for her mother’s killer). If Slovo talks about an incident that will not come up again in the book, she will answer all questions then and there; if she mentions one of her parents’ (to use her word) comrades in, say, 1961, she’ll include a footnote to explain what happened to them later in life (usually a violent death at the hands of the South African state).
I love how she skips through time with such ease and yet it’s so clear to the reader! That takes skill. She uses such devices as “Years later I would interview someone who would clarify this issue…” and then transitions back to the main time frame by saying, “But that was still to come. In the meantime, I was still listening to so-and-so talk…”
I also like how she presented research in her story. She quotes from letters or refers to conversations she’s had about the situations, rather than just telling us the straightforward story that she has pieced together. She is being transparent about where she’s getting her information and is allowing the reader to judge how reliable the information is (which is especially important in situations where she’s gotten contradictory testimony from different sources). This also makes me want to include more references to “In my diary at the time, I wrote…” and such in my own writing. That adds a vividness and another dimension of truth and authenticity.
Here’s what she has to say about memory and time, that there’s no one Truth in memory: “I’d realized that memory, experience, interpretation could never be fixed or frozen into one, unchanging truth. They kept on moving, relentlessly metamorphosizing into something other so that the jagged edges of each fragment would never, ever slot together… The dead stayed dead, but the rest of us kept going. When we finally looked back, distance distorted what we saw.”
For the most part, Slovo does an excellent job of revealing how difficult it is for a child to understand why her parents aren’t there for her, awesome political struggle or not. A child doesn’t understand everything that’s going on and why, she just knows that her parents are gone (in jail, in exile, or even if home, constantly organizing and distant emotionally). I do think that adult Slovo could be a little more sympathetic to her parents’ plight as an adult looking back, now understanding what was at stake, but perhaps the childhood resentments ran too deep.
I love what Nelson Mandela said to the author at one point when she was an adult: “He told us how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter she had flinched away from him, and burst out, ‘You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.’ … This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps his only regret: the fact that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment. …[A]s the state poured out its wrath, they had watched their children suffer. And yet, and yet — what else could they have done?” I think this captures perfectly the dilemma these activists and their children were in.
I have to end with this amazing quote I found from Gillian Slovo’s father, Joe Slovo, written soon after WWII (note that the Slovos are Jewish):
“Within a few years the wars of consolidation and expansion began. Ironically enough, the horrors of the Holocaust became the rationalization for the preparation by Zionists of acts of genocide against the indigenous people of Palestine. Those of us who, in the years that were to follow, raised our voices publicly against the violent apartheid of the Israeli state were vilified by the Zionist press. It is ironic, too, that the Jew-haters in South Africa – those who worked and prayed for a Hitler victory – have been linked in close embrace with the rulers of Israel in a new axis based on racism.”
Originally published on WordPress on Sept. 27, 2009