Click here to read reviewer Aneesha Capur's take on Bitter Fruit.
Young Silas Ali is an active member of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. Silas' new wife, Lydia, is unaware of the degree of her husband's commitment. Then Lydia is raped by Lieutenant DuBoise, an Afrikaans officer who takes her with impunity in front of her husband. Although such atrocities are commonplace at the time, the violent act remains a personal shame, quietly festering until twenty years later, when Silas encounters DuBoise in the street..
As the novel opens, South Africa is awaiting the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, coming to terms with the brutal excesses of its past. The chance meeting with DuBoise stirs up years of anguish and resentment for Silas and Lydia, throwing their troubled marriage into stark relief. Nineteen-year-old Mikey, used to his parents' marital idiosyncrasies, secretly reads his mother's diary, which reveals a shocking truth that will shake the foundations of the young man's world.
Silas tells Lydia that DuBoise is requesting a public apology before the Commission and has named her as one of his victims. The unspoken nightmare become real, their lives are clouded by this knowledge: "That's the problem with this country. We want to forgive but we don't want to forget." Lydia watches her husband turn more isolated, her son more distant: “She sees in Mikey an enslavement to another, more puritanical God: his will.” Silas, Lydia and Michael are without framework as the past turns against the future, the destructive truth shattering the fragile walls of family.
Toward the end of the novel, Michael is told the story of his grandfather, a harrowing tale set in motion when the British occupied India and forced European values upon their subjects - the seed of resentment planted in the early days of Imperialism, the chaos unleashed years in the making. Mikey dismisses the older generation with their need for “legacy“, envisioning themselves as “heroes in the struggle.” A product of the new South Africa, Michael reaches for the roots of his Muslim past, bringing him face to face with murder in an act of personal and generational vengeance.
This novel is beautifully written, emotionally spare yet with a subtle intensity that unveils secret shame and hidden truths as each character startles awake as if from a long dream, able to survive only in another, freer identity. The true nature of change is abundantly clear and the enormous price it exacts.
Dangor’s novel is personal, a reenactment of a familiar tragedy. In this work, “rape is a metaphor for the abuse of ordinary people in South Africa.” In a world defined by apartheid, newly released from its constrictions only to be cast into the nightmare of the AIDS epidemic, there is no voice for the anguish of imposed silence. Beautifully understated, Bitter Fruit is a life-changing exercise of integrity and courage.