Stefanie's Reviews > The Pickup

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer
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Jan 18, 2012

really liked it
Read from December 26, 2011 to January 01, 2012

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer is the first of her novels I have read and it definitely won't be the last. I began it at the end of December intending to zip through it. But within a few pages it became clear that this was not a book to zip through, it is one to savor. So I savored.

The first part of the novel takes place in post-apartheid South Africa. Julie is a young white woman from an upper-middle class family. She works as a celebrity promoter and has done her best to distance herself as much as she can from all in her family except for a beloved uncle. Julie despises the privileges of whiteness and wealth, the hypocrisy and artificiality of the wealthy businessmen her father entertains, and the us versus them mentality that such a life engenders.

When she is not working, Julie is at "the table" at the EL-AY Cafe, the table of friends, all refugees from middle class backgrounds who are trying to live "real" lives and meet "real" people. The table has a bit of bohemian feel to it, but none of them are really bohemians or radicals of any sort. In a way they have created their own world that is just as artificial as the one they came from.

One day on the way to the Cafe, Julie's car breaks down. She locates a repair shop not far away and negotiates the repair of her car with Abdu, one of the mechanics. Soon she is inviting him to coffee at the table. Julie learns Abdu is an immigrant from an Arab country. His visa has expired and he is living in a room behind the car repair garage. There is excitement for Julie in dating not only someone who is illegal but also someone who is clearly not of her privileged background. Soon they become lovers and Abdu moves in to Julie's cottage.

But then Abdu receives notice that he has two weeks to leave the country or he will be deported. Abdu persuades Julie to use her family connections and money to try and find a way for him to remain in the country. She tries everything she can but is not successful.

By this point Julie has fallen in love with Abdu and surprises him with two airline tickets to his country. She is going with him. But Abdu insists that she must then marry him because his Muslim family will not accept her otherwise. Julie finds out that Abdu's real name is Ibrahim ibn Musa. Before she can decide how she feels about this, she is his wife and on her way to his home.

The second half of the book takes place in the family home of Abdu/Ibrahim located in a small village on the edge of the desert. She is welcomed by the family but they aren't sure what to make of her. She doesn't speak Arabic nor is she Muslim. Julie must rely on the halting English of Miriam, Ibrahim's sister to help her figure out what is being said since Ibrahim is not at home much. He is determined not to stay and begins applying for visas to any country he has not already been deported from.

Weeks turn into months and the prospect of leaving fades. Julie starts to learn Arabic and to teach English first to the family, then to other women in the village, and eventually she even ends up teaching at the local school on the condition that girls be allowed to attend lessons too. Julie finds herself fitting in and becoming part of the family and part of the village.

No more of the plot, you will need to read the book for yourself to discover the rest.

The story is told from a third person perspective but we sometimes slip into Julie's head and sometimes in Abdu/Ibrahim's. The characters develop slowly, we discover things about them as they discover it about each other. The language is gorgeous. It is like water and how it can be both hard and soft, flowing and still. As a sample, here is a passage in a scene where one of Julie's father's wealthy business associates is moving to Australia. He is taking his family and his servants for whom getting visas was easy because he is rich and knows the right people:

'Relocate' they're saying. It's the current euphemism for pulling up anchor and going somewhere else, either perforce or because of the constrictions of poverty or politics, or by choice of ambition and belief that there's an even more privileged life, safe from the pitchforks and AK-47s of the rebellious poor and the handguns of the criminals. It's not a matter of unpacking furniture in new premises. Some of the dictionary definitions of the root word 'locate' give away the inexpressible yearning that cannot be explained by ambition, privilege, or even fear of others. Promised land, an Australia, if you like.


While Ibrahim cannot stay in South Africa, Julie has no trouble at all getting official permission to move to his country. And while in Ibrahim's country, the difficulty of his leaving is because he is an Arab with no rich connections. Julie can fairly easily obtain a visa for any country she wishes to go to.

Besides immigration, one of the other aspects of the book I found really interesting was both Julie and Ibrahim were ashamed of their families and each thought the other was wrong to feel that way. In Ibrahim's family Julie finds a place where she feels like she can belong. Ibrahim doesn't understand it, thinks she is playing tourist or is considering it all part of just one more adventure. He doesn't understand why she should want to give up her family's wealth and privilege. She doesn't understand why he wants to leave the closeness and acceptance of his family.

Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, family for Julie in South Africa is all male. Julie's parents are divorced and her mother is remarried to a businessman and living in California. In Ibrahim's home, while his father is the head of the family it is really his mother who is the force in the household. Because the men leave the house in the early morning Julie spends her days with women and children. It is the women who welcome her, teach her Arabic, teach her to cook, make her feel cared for. Ibrahim is never around and when he is, he often criticizes her for wanting to fit into the family.

While in the beginning it seems that Julie has made the pickup, in the end it isn't quite so clear as to who picked up whom. But in a strange way, they both end up getting exactly what they want, for better or worse.
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