I don't understand the confusion over the writing. I've read other noted experimental novels that were much more difficult (ie Calvino) but writing can (and should) take so many forms, why does it always have to be predictable and follow convention? In this book the structure worked for me and I admire the way she manipulated language to create an intended mood.
What is interesting is that this is a book of conjecture or futurism, written when the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was taking real shape and getting serious global attention, and when the white people were becoming more aware as to what was really happening in the townships (the news was heavily regulated by the apartheid regime).
Gordimer was working out what might happen if there was real violence and revolution in the streets. It must have been a very scary time, not knowing how it was all going to turn out and whether South Africa would go down the same road as other African countries where clashing clans exterminate each other on a regular basis. She had to consider what would happen if their lives would be in jeopardy to the point that they would have to flee and go in hiding. What a scary concept, one we have only recently had to contemplate after 9/11 woke us up to terror in our midst. (I personally had a fantasy of what I would put in the suitcase and which direction I would head if I felt that the attacks were going to continue).
While there was violence during the revolution in South Africa, it wasn't nearly as bad as the book projected. In reality, the revolution happened without a violent overthrow of the government but with a democratic and relatively (relative to other similar changes of government) peaceful election (thank you Mandela). The violence that occurred was sporadic, and there were bombings during the uncertain times while the government was de-stabilized. But white people weren't pulled from their homes or farms and killed in mass numbers. The way I gather it the "white flight" was from, for example, Johannesburg into the suburbs.
However, back to the novel. I thought it was a great character study and attempt to dissect what it might feel like to be forced into your worst nightmare, your world turned upside down due to civil war, how Gordimer, who likely had black servants in her household (and maybe still does?) would feel if this situation were to happen. It was her version of how one might handle the worst case scenario. Details like what she would do without tampons, and how her children adapted so easily, gave the novel depth.
People think that not much "happens" in this book, but in life things don't tend to happen with the rapidity that they do in novels or movies. Life happens slowly, and people lose sleep trying to figure out how to decide what to do next, how to handle a situation, going through the "what ifs." The big thing has happened that set the plot in motion - they were forced to leave behind their entire material lives and start over in a strange place where everything was unfamiliar and they had to rely on their servant's kindness. One by one they lost even the smallest "things" they had left that made them feel safe and like they had choices. The car was gone. The gun was taken. Even their clothes were falling apart. What more was there to lose? What do you have left when your possessions are gone? Is a marriage enough to survive on? How do you fill the empty days? It is a fascinating topic and Gordimer only scratches the surface of this complex issue.
I only give this a 4 star instead of 5 because I am really frustrated with the ending. I want to know what happened. I don't like being left hanging after getting involved with this family. I wish there was more about this from other readers.
My thought is that since it was a novel based on conjecture, she left the ending open to speculation, indicating that the future can't be predicted, and she wasn't willing to bring her "what if" to a final conclusion, anything could happen.