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Other Lives

Other Lives

By André Brink

About the Author
André Brink is one of South Africa’s most eminent novelists. He is the author of 17 works of fiction, has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and is an outspoken recorder of South Africa’s turbulent history from the days of apartheid to the present.

Reading Group Guide

In just one morning, he forgot who he was...

Three provocative and interconnected stories from one of the world's greatest living writers:

A white painter in Africa comes to his studio in the afternoon. On his doorstep, he sees a woman with curly hair and a dark complexion. He has never seen her before, but she embraces him. As he steps past her, two strange children rush to his feet yelling "Daddy!" This family welcomes him home, but he knows none of them.

On the other side of Cape Town, a white man pulls himself out of bed and toward his mirror, where he is confronted by his suddenly black face.

A concert pianist falls passionately in love with the celebrated singer he works beside, but cannot bring himself to touch her, until one night they sit down to eat dinner, and look up to see themselves surrounded by armed men.

1. While this is set in South Africa, the social and political themes are very universal. Did you see any similarities between issues of race and sex in this novel’s South Africa and the same issues in our United States?

2. The novel begins with David’s very vivid dream. The dream’s meaning is ambiguous to David, but he does say that the dream “should have alerted him.” To what should it have alerted him? How does the dream foreshadow the events and themes of the novel?

3. When David is about to have sex with Sarah, he asks if he will not be cowardly abandoning Lydia (page 31). Do the normal rules of morality and faithfulness apply in the alternate reality David has found himself in, or is it ridiculous to apply those standards to a situation so incredibly out of the ordinary? Is having sex with Sarah wrong?

4. When David’s family reacts “grotesquely” to his relationship with the colored woman Embeth, David demands that he and Embeth can discuss the situation “like grownups,” Embeth replies “Like hell we can.” The phrase “like grownups” implies a logical, rational kind of conversation about David’s family and David and Embeth’s relationship. Is it possible to react rationally to something as inherently irrational as racism?

5. When David asks Sarah, “Why do you love me?” Sarah replies, “Because you make me possible.” How do the situations, people, and circumstances that surround us shape who we are? How have the events of your life made you who you are?

6. Steve describes himself as “‘a man without qualities,’ deviating neither left nor right.” In politics, he is simply “not interested.” Do you think his day forces him to become any more politically aware? In what ways?

7. Both Steve and David have sexual encounters on the day of their transformations. Steve’s, lusty, forceful, and almost wordless, is very different from David’s. To what extent does the difference between their sexual encounters illustrate the different ways they approach their new, transformed lives? How do their encounters demonstrate the difference between their overall characters and perpsectives?

8. Lydia tells Steve that the world is “supposed to be a new place now. Nothing is the same anymore.” How do the changes that occur to the characters in this book shed light on the “new place” the world has become? Did the sudden, drastic changes in the characters lives shed any light, for you, on our contemporary world?

9. The bergies’ taunts send Steve up into a rage like they never have before. Why, on this day, is he so bothered by their harassment? Is it simply because of the racial insults, or is there a deeper reason for his anger?

10. Throughout the book, people make comments that are explicitly and implicitly racist. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt compelled to respond to a comment you perceived as racist? What did you say and how did the person who made the comment respond?

11. The restaurant robbery is violent and terrifying. Afterward Derek and Nina have different perspectives. Derek tells Nina, “if you look at it properly, nothing has really happened. We managed to get through it all without anybody getting really hurt.” Nina replies, “Nothing can be the same after this.” After a traumatic event such as the restaurant robbery, do you think it makes more sense to continue to live as you have always planned on living, or to let the event forcibly change your perspective and your lifestyle? Have you ever experienced a traumatic event? How did it change you?
12. In what ways do you think the ending of the novel, Derek and Nina finally coming together and making love, ties together the themes and conflicts of the novel’s three stories? Do you think it’s a hopeful ending, or a dark and ambiguous one?


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