Only a few pages into this important novel you can tell that Gordimer has marshaled all her powers to directly take on, once and for all, what's at the degraded center of the South African milieu she has explored before. A Solzhenitsyn would appreciate the breadth of her rage here; and if this angry, agonized book lacks anything, it's only Solzhenitsyn's mastery of dramatization and parable. Lionel Burger, an Afrikaans doctor, was the saint of the banned South African Communist party; when his daughter Rosa was 14 he was sent to jail for life, only to die shortly thereafter. That Rosa, who has grown up always on the knife-edge of political opposition and danger, enters young adulthood steering a course away from politics is understandable--hasn't her family contributed enough? She becomes a physiotherapist and is not eager to do even the mildest anti-government work. But, in a Dostoevskian scene, she witnesses a drunken Soweto black whipping a donkey with such blind cruelty that she can't take it anymore: she must flee. By playing up to a young, brilliant Afrikaans apologist, she manages to get an exit visa; she flies to the Riviera, her first trip out of the country, to summer with her father's first wife. Sybaritic life in France couldn't be more different from what Rosa is used to: she has a love affair and even considers staying in Europe until a run-in with a black student she knows from Soweto clears her mind, recalls her responsibility. She returns to South Africa, works in a Soweto hospital, and eventually is detained during the 1977 crackdown on dissidents. Gordimer turns away from none of the uneasy questions--Lionel's communism (""Who are they to make you responsible for Stalin and deny you Christ?"" Rosa wonders), white guilt and responsibility, the vast sin that hangs over anything and anyone associated with apartheid--though the political ideas are largely, unfortunately relegated to conversation. Also a problem: the frequent over-tooling of the prose, in a book that seems by nature to reject too fine a sensibility. But, although it's not The First Circle or Cancer Ward, this is a strong, pulsing piece of work in which the moral imperatives stand right out: the must-read fiction on South Africa for the 1970s, just as Alan Paton was essential reading a generation ago.