Thursday, 10 December 2009
The world that was ours (Bernstein)
I'm not sure why it took so long for The world that was ours this Persephone book to make it into my consciousness, especially as it has also been republished as a Persephone Classic, but it was not until I realised that it was the only Persephone Classic that I didn't own that I thought I should look out for it. So, it was top of my list to pick up at the evening with Nicola Beauman that I went to on Monday - and fortunately the Woodstock Bookshop had a copy (although it was in the traditional grey rather than the newer edition). I spent most of Tuesday evening, pinned to the sofa, absolutely gripped by this wonderful book.
Word of warning - this is not a comfort read as many Persephone books are. Rather it is a worrying and thrilling real-life account of Bernstein's life in South Africa in the early 1960s, telling the story of the 1964 Rivonia Trial. Bernstein's husband Rusty was acquitted in this trial, but Nelson Mandela and others received life sentences. The book starts out by describing the lives of Hilda and Rusty and their children at this time, and how their membership of the Communist Party in South Africa, and their consequent attempt to fight apartheid, led to increasing numbers of restrictions being placed on their lives. Then Rusty is imprisoned for ninety days, and we learn about his time in prison, and eventually the trial. Then Bernstein's own life is threatened with arrest, and she is forced to make an escape...
I found the book both hugely thrilling and absolutely fascinating, I learnt a huge amount about a situation of which I knew very little, and at the same time saw how it affected everyday life. I was hugely impressed by the resilience of the couple and their determination to stay on and fight for a cause when they could very easily have left the country. The tension caused by the constant worries and frustrations were really well captured by Bernstein and made the book a real page-turner.
And what of domesticity? After hearing Beauman emphasise the domestic element of many Persephone books, I found myself thinking about how this book would fit into this paradigm. At first glance it isn't might seem that it doesn't - it's concerned with politics and apartheid. But actually, it is - the political elements only provide a backdrop to the story, and are secondary to the thoughts and feelings of a woman dealing with living in such a situation. When she escapes from her home, her thoughts are on the washing machine, still in a spin cycle, and on the domestic chores that she was in the middle of doing. Home also provides Rusty with a haven.
What a wonderful time I had reading this book. I've really remembered how much I love Persephone books this week, and am planning to read (and hopefully review) another one each week this year - The Victorian Chaise Longue, The Carlyles at Home, and To bed with Grand Music are all lined up for December.