A South Africa native and practicing lawyer debuts with a light story about a privileged white family making their way through guilt and broken hearts in a post-apartheid world.
The Divin family prospered throughout apartheid, but they were good people. After father Silas killed himself over money troubles and the walls of apartheid began to totter in the late ’70s, the family exploded: son Danny ran off to America and success in finance; sister Bridget was jailed on the belief that she’d had a relationship with a black man, then followed Danny; and mother Helga, once a left-leaning political candidate, exited to London with a new husband, Arnold, a South African fat-cat. Family infighting forms the story’s tension, and Schmahmann is far better at depicting subtle family dynamics than addressing international political issues. Each character narrates his or her own chapter, Danny getting two to accommodate his thing for black women. Danny’s youthful romantic fling with a neighbor’s servant girl was true love, and he hasn’t forgotten her even after marrying an African-American woman, first for citizenship, then for something apparently deeper than friendship. Now, it’s the 20-year Divin reunion. Helga and Arnold arrive in the US to see the children and grandchildren, but of course there’s an ulterior motive: grandfather left a cool $6 million in the country, and can Danny go and get it out despite the laws? And once there, will he see his old fling? And what are the political and romantic ramifications of all this? The author’s tone of lament is easy to submit to, but the descriptions too often read like set direction, the asides like character development. It’s Gordimer territory with neither the majesty of words nor the completeness of vision. Schmahmann tries to keep us on the edge of our seats by tactically withholding critical information, but for the most part the tactic is transparent and ultimately tiresome.
Tailor-made for Hollywood, and sure to jerk a few tears.