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At the Still Point by Mary Benson
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At the Still Point (1969)

by Mary Benson

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At the Still Point tells the story of Anne Dawson, a journalist who returns from London to the turmoil of 1965 South Africa. Much of the story focuses on the trial of Beatrice Qaba, a woman accused of trying to raise funds for the ANC. This book was inspired by Mary Benson's experience of writing about political trials in the Eastern Cape in 1964 and she explains in an afterword that several of the characters are based on real people.

Benson effectively portrays the horrors and injustices of the apartheid system. I also enjoyed the conflicts between the 'radical' white population and those who chose to ignore what was happening to the black population. She raises interesting questions about the complicitness of the white English community. They consider themselves to be removed from the decisions of the Afrikaans, but are complicit in the continuation of the system - 'To witness, and not to protest - was this not to participate?'

I think it is hard to write a book like this without the reader feeling that anything not about apartheid is tacked on to make it into a novel rather than a non-fiction work. I found the characters of Anne and Matthew Marais, a radical defence lawyer, and their relationship, to be a bit flimsy. Matthew is the symbol of white resistance with his unwavering belief that the system can be destroyed, if not by his actions then by those of future generations. He seems to be too good - never a crisis of faith, never questioning his actions. Anne's role is to enable us to learn about apartheid as she does and as she questions Matthew's devotion to the cause. She has just come out of a difficult relationship and he has come out of a traumatic divorce - it's a bit too obvious that they are destined to be together.

However, overall a good read. ( )
  charbutton | Jun 2, 2009 |
At the Still Point is the story of a woman, Anne Dawson, who returns to South Africa after many years of exile and finds purpose through reporting of court cases and the injustices non-Whites face in the legal system. Finding her life in New York City with her boyfriend Roger (who has such classic 60s lines as "You're a scream, Anne baby, I just love you!") to be too constraining, Anne runs off to her home country of South Africa to think things through. She quickly falls back in with her old Liberal/reformist friends, many of whom have since spent time in prison for their beliefs. Unable to stomach her collaborationist cousins, Patrick and Sally, Anne seeks peace elsewhere and, based on the recommendation of a friend, begins to work with the reformist lawyer, Matthew Marais, who is defending a Black woman, Beatrice Qaba, accused of selling a van to raise money for illegal Black separatist groups. Through her relationship with Marais, Anne begins to dedicate herself to the idea of a new, happier future for South Africa.

Mary Benson was admittedly influenced by Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country and it shows in her work. At the Still Point could very well be about the children of Arthur Jarvis' friends from his social reform activities. The same kind of soul-searching and love for South Africa that is apparent in Paton's work is also in Benson's. It was very easy to identify with Anne, who displays an amazing amount of personal strength. She is not afraid to fight for what she believes in, which makes for a hilarious scene when her cousins seat her next to a well-thought-of nationalist and expect her to behave. You know that she is going to say something "embarrassing" the moment Sally says Anne is to sit next to Coetzee, because that is the kind of person Anne has become. Another memorable scene brings a whole new meaning to the term "show trial", when the defense attorney in a Port Elizabeth trial, who is a wiling part of the system, begins singing "Que Sera Sera" after the tea break and is joined in by the prosecutor. Why bother having this trial, this seems to say: "whatever will be, will be", and we all know how this is going to end. It is this system that Matthew, Anne, and their friends fight against, even when the 90 day automatic imprisonment becomes 180 and habeas corpus is thrown out the window.

Benson is such a good writer that the reader is drawn up in it too, hoping and wishing for the same dreams as Anne and Matthew. I particularly enjoyed the afterward, in which Benson describes how the story would probably have played out after the novel ended, which gives a further commentary on the course of South African history. While not as great a novel as Paton's masterpiece, At the Still Point is an important book for its showcase of the kinds of resistance that was given to the apartheid regime and the injustices imparted by the system. South Africa comes alive through Benson's prose, as does the heroine. I highly recommend the book not only to someone who has an interest in South Africa or enjoys Alan Paton, but to anyone who likes novels that make you think, because At the Still Point will leaving you thinking long after the last page has been turned. ( )
4 vote inge87 | Aug 18, 2008 |
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"at the still point, there the dance is"
- T.S. Eliot
Dedication
To A.F., A.P, and A.F., through whom I learned to know and to love my country. Also to A.K. and P.R. , but especially the latter for excellent and most generous criticism and encouragement.
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The plane lurched under my stockinged feet.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"'In our country every day love and dignity and decency are destroyed. Well, once this is recognized you are on the side of life. Yes, you are harassed and restricted, but that in itself means you have power.'

In 1965 journalist Anne Dawson returns to South Africa. Cushioned from political reality by the security of Johannesburg's white middle-class social round, she is at first untouched by the sense of mounting tension amongst old friends assisting what remains of the black resistance. This is the period of the Ninety Day law and such activity can be dangerous. When, at the urging of a radical defense lawyer, Matthew Marais, Anne travels to the Eastern Cape to report on political trials in isolated villages, she questions: 'to witness and not to protest--was this not to participate?' Compelled by love for Matthew and by a growing sense of commitment, she discovers the meaning of repression and of betrayal in political and human terms. 'A live nerve of a novel,' says Nadine Gordimer."
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