The first time you fell in love, the unforgettable fling, the break-up that changed the way you felt about love and romance, the relationship that could’ve been, but never was – everyone has a ‘one that got away’. For Deborah Morley – the protagonist in Gail Gilbride’s novel, Under the African Sun – it was Chris Jarvis. It’s never said, but, even in the early chapters of the book, there’s a clear sense it’s going to be the case.
There is, however, another theme that runs parallel to the story of love and heartbreak; a socio-political coming-of-age. Even so, as the country barely endures one of the most volatile eras in history, the reader is reminded that the day-to-day ups and downs experienced by individuals prevail regardless.
Set in turbulent South Africa in the mid-1970s, Under the African Sun tells the convincing story of recent university graduate, Deborah, who finds work as an intern for a Cape Town newspaper. She is in love with (and in awe of) political lecturer and activist, Chris. Naïve, idealistic and giddy with youthful passion, Deborah allows Chris to lament her political ignorance. Paradoxically though, he also insists she remain that way for her own safety. She, unsure of her future as a reporter and nursing dreams of marriage and domesticity, is more or less content to do so – until circumstances see her experience some of the violence first hand.
In Under the African Sun, Hout Bay-based Gilbride refers to speeches by then-prime minister BJ Vorster, protests in the streets of Cape Town and the Soweto Riots. Moreover, Chris is a political activist, but the novel is not first and foremost a political story. It’s a heartfelt historical romance that tells the tale of the excitement and anguish of first love, the importance of friendships, and the many things that determine the decisions we make as young adults. It’s a story – told with skill, humour and sensitivity – that also demonstrates why it’s essential to ‘come of age’ when you’re young enough to roll with the punches.