cover image The House Gun

The House Gun

Nadine Gordimer. Farrar Straus Giroux, $24 (294pp) ISBN 978-0-374-17307-4

When a society breeds violence, its effects filter into the lives of its most privileged citizens. As she has done so trenchantly throughout her career, Nobel Prize winner Gordimer (None to Accompany Me) again examines moral questions in microcosm through the lives of her South African characters. Here, an upperclass professional couple--insurance executive Harald and physician Claudia Lindgard--face the unthinkable when their 27-year-old son, Duncan, in a fit of passion, picks up the ""house gun,"" a staple item in many affluent households for protection against marauders, and shoots a man who has doubly betrayed him. Part of the power of this fascinating novel derives from the depiction of the senior Lindgards' progression of emotions: disbelief that their son could commit such an act, followed by guilt about their shortcomings as parents and, finally, abandonment of their genteel ethics as they plead to Duncan's brilliant, suave black lawyer to just get their son off. Reeling in amazement as they learn about the complicated relationships in Duncan's life, they gain insights into parts of the culture (gay, black, sexually free) they had never encountered. A trial scene twinging with suspense offers further glimpses into the progress made and the tensions still present in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet Gordimer never loses her focus on the dramatic nuances of human character, and her narrative, though related in cool prose, resonates with compassion. If once or twice she can't resist didactic statements (""Violence desecrates freedom. That is what the country is doing to itself.""), the message of this powerful novel is rings true. (Jan.)