How do you define home? Is it where you were born? What about family? Is it the people who raised you? These are some of the issues Nadine Gordimer explores in her novel, The Pickup.
Meet Julie Summers. Born into an affluent white South African family, she is the poor little rich girl skirting through life, working at an unfulfilling job, spouting pretentious jargon with liberal friends. Ashamed of her wealthy father and her social butterfly of a step-mother, she rebels against everything they represent. Although thirty years old, she has yet to find her place in the world. Then, one day, her car breaks down. And Julie’s life changes.
Enter Abdu/Ibrahim, a young Arab mechanic who repairs her car. It’s no surprise when the two become lovers. Abdu’s illegal immigration status is discovered by authorities. He has 10 days to leave the country. Julie decides to join him. They get married and board the plane to an unnamed country somewhere in the Arab world.
Abdu/Ibrahim is ashamed of the primitive conditions of life in his village. He is baffled by Julie’s cheerful willingness to acculturate to her adopted home, to embrace its rituals and traditions, its gendered roles and restrictions. He anticipates her announcement on any given day that she is heading back to daddy in South Africa. Meanwhile, he races from one consulate to another, desperate to obtain a visa to any western country that will accept him. Eventually, he obtains a visa to America and makes plans to leave his village, fully expecting Julie to accompany him. But Julie has other ideas. She refuses to leave. She has found home. She has found family.
In the hands of an inexperienced writer, the story borders on being cliché. Poor little rich girl falls in love. Marries a man beneath her social standing. Follows him to a foreign culture. Finds her place in the world. But the story is anything but cliché in the hands of Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Gordimer treats her characters with empathy and sensitivity. Her portrayal of even tertiary characters is masterful and authentic. She captures the halting English and cadences of Abdu/Ibrahim; his desperate struggle to escape from his village; his eagerness to plunge headlong into a country he knows nothing about in the hope of a better life; his yearning for success within a capitalist society; and his complete inability to understand his wife. In Julie she captures her slow and bumpy transformation from recognizing the superficial life of white privilege that characterized her previous existence to an understanding that what constitutes home and family has little to do with material wealth. Julie immerses herself in the daily rituals of cooking and cleaning; of the muezzin’s call to prayer that punctuates the rhythms of the day; in the silence of the desert that speaks to her; and in the cooperation, community, love, and warmth she finds in her adopted family. Both Abdu/Ibrahim and Julie are searching for home, for a place to belong. Ironically, their search leads them in opposite directions.
Gordimer’s writing style presents some challenges. Fragments and incomplete thoughts abound. The language shifts from internal thoughts to spoken dialog without the usual indicators of quotation marks. Gordimer dispenses with, “he said/she said,” so one has to use context to determine who said what. But once you get accustomed to the writing style, the language flows seamlessly from thought to spoken word, from one character to another in a way that accurately captures the fragmentary nature of our thoughts and conversations.
This is a wonderful novel that slowly grows on you as it builds to its climax through the use of telling details. Offering a vision of how we can communicate and relate to one another across barriers of difference, The Pickup is a compelling story told by a master of the craft.