Set over a few months in 1961, this portrait of a developing political crisis is told from the point of view of a young boy living in a suburb of the inland provincial city of Pietermaritzburg in Natal, South Africa.
Harry Mac, the boy’s father, is a large and charismatic man, the new editor of the English language newspaper for the city and under suspicion by the Special Branch. The year 1961 is to become a pivotal year in South African politics: the country becomes a republic and leaves the British Commonwealth, the Sharpeville massacre occurs, and the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, begins their direct confrontation with the Nationalist government.
The culminating event of the book is a visit to the city by the Prime Minister, and the book describes the accumulating tensions in the lead-up to this. The older brother, on active service in the army, clears off to live in England rather than stay in South Africa, the housemaid’s son is arrested as a terrorist, the Jewish neighbour exiles himself and his family to Mozambique but is killed in questionable circumstances, and the Special Branch forces are out of control with no one to stand up against them but the Press.
Tom, the narrator, is a ‘naive’ recorder of the events unrolling around him, and as a child relates with equal emphasis a trip to the cinema, his mother’s pleasure in showing off a new dress and dancing to an American record on the radiogram, and a police raid on the housemaid’s quarters, the inexplicable murder-suicide of a neighbouring family (eventually explained as a tragedy caused by racial classification policies) and an overheard conversation about a possible assassination plot against the Prime Minister Verwoerd. An interpretation of these events is woven into the text by the insertion of editorials written by the character’s father.
Harry Mac is described as a coming-of-age story in the release notes, but I would it call it a deeply personal work, more a ‘coming-to-terms’ book. It is a fact that people who have lived through torrid times of political repression, often need to spend much of their later years going over it as a way of processing it, or as a way of weighing and sifting the significance and importance in history of these events. The author was himself a journalist who lived in Pietermaritzburg so it is hard to judge how much is autobiographical, but it seemed to me that it was coming from a very personal place.