"Something terrible has happened" said the messenger on a dreadful night. For Harald ( director of Board in an Insurance Company) and Claudia ( a working doctor of repute), the world is about to change. Their son has been arrested for murdering his friend and house mate, shooting him. Importantly, he has admitted the crime to the police.
Duncan, 27, staying in a cottage of the house in which three of his friends are residing had murdered his friend. His girlfriend, whom he had rescued from committing suicide some time ago, was found making love to the deceased, the previous night. This was cited as the motivation behind the murder. Duncan is now in prison awaiting trial, and Hamilton Motsamai, a black lawyer has been hired to defend him.
As the planning and preparation begin, for the defence of the case, many unpleasant truths are out in the open. Natalia, whom Duncan have rescued and was brought back to life is now not able to bare the weight of obligation. Though she spent her night with Duncan, the relationship is far from what is being called a true love. More over, the house mates among themselves lead a gay relationship, to which Duncan was also a participant until recently. Is this the sexuality and the related jealousy the reason ? Duncan, don't seems to be bothered about the incident of witnessing his lovers love-making to his friend. Hence, it is important to know the real motive, the circumstances that made Duncan to perform the gruesome act despite his nature ( he does not exhibit any tendency towards violence) has to be extablished.
For Harald and Claudia, the trial is on them. They share the guilt along with their son. Apart from being looked at as the parents of a murderer, they also have to endure the process of trial in the court. They seek among themselves and find out incidents which could have made the behavioural changes in Duncan. Parents starts suspecting the upbringing, their love and guidance and their own relationship with their child as well as among themselves. They also have to reconcile to the fact that a black lawyer is going to take up their son's defence, despite their prejudice. There is also debate in the society against 'death penalty' and that decision will also have direct impact on the fortune of their son. As the trial begins, and the curtains of individuals life as well as the social structure opens up. Motsamai, on his part has done a commendable job and manages to reduce the sentence to the least possible in the given circumstances.
This book was written just after the end of apartheid. One should approach this book in that context. The house gun, is a symbol of the larger social issue of lawlessness and violence, prevalent in South Africa. It is also interesting to note the changing social order, with the black lawyer defending the white middle class family. Harald and Claudia have to come out of their usual white middle class background, to accommodate the need to have the black lawyer to save the life of their child, but also have a foster son (albeit for a short period) in the form of Khulu ( one of the house mate and a friend of Duncan) to give them emotional and moral support, through out the period of trial.
Nadine Gordimer's use of language and the style is very good. However, the second part of the novel with the elaborate court room drama , however important it is, was not something I liked. I found this book also testing the relationship at various level. The husband and wife, the lovers, the society and the government, the white and black ; I would say she has walked this delicate path admirably. May not be the best of books by the Nobel laureate,but an important one, nonetheless.
The House Gun
Further Read : Africafiles.org , Salon Interview with Nadine Gordimer, NY Times