Plainly, sparely, in an undeviating direction downward, Burgess (The Strike) sets out the life of Nel, a young Afrikaaner woman in the 1930s who must leave her large, desperately poor family in Prince Albert (in ""the Kar"" region) to look for work in the city. A job in a second-hand-clothes store, accommodations at a rickety, terrible rooming house called Hall's Annex: these mingy basics come to seem, considering what's to follow, high points of this pathetic woman's life. She meets and marries a handsome, shiftless fellow boarder, Piet Staines, who turns out to be infertile, alcoholic, and abusive. She and Piet never do leave Hall's Annex--as convincingly depressing a habitat as you're likely to find in contemporary fiction--with Piet eventually taking to his bed (out of which only death, from cirrhosis, finally lifts him). Alone, aged, with a disfiguring goiter hanging from her chin, Nel returns to the Kar, to her youngest sister Maigret, who is married to a rich farmer and the only one in Nel's family to have found even a semblance of success; but Nel is out of place there, an object of pity and revulsion, and, having reached bottom, she dies. The life, therefore, that Burgess limns is one to be lived-out, with the most merciful dispatch. And Nel's endurance of the only experiences she knows--the title is harrowingly ironic--is what gives this small, dour, but steel-eyed novel its humbling, powerful, Hardy-esque impact.