When I was at university in the eighties there was a place called Nelson Mandela Hall. I didn't know much about South African politics then - had just some vague idea that there were separate spaces and rules for those born white and those who were not. Of course I knew it was wrong, but it was just somewhere far away, nothing to do with me. Then I remember Mandela being released, and the unexpected smallness of his face, and I knew something had changed and thought I understood, but having read this novel I know now that I did not.
A TOUCH OF THE SUN brings that era before the end of apartheid disturbingly alive. Simon is a reluctant hero: he is not liberal, not idealistic, his views are of the conventional racist white man. But gradually, and very believably, he changes in spite of himself - it is something that he tries to deny but it something he cannot resist. His sense of what is right and what he must do and how he must fight becomes inexorable and in the end he can do nothing but succumb. His changing friendships and loyalties are expertly portrayed and the unfolding story absorbing. The character of Simon, especially his adolescent obsession with sex, is fiercely frank and the last scenes especially poignant. But the most important and gratifying aspect of this book, which makes me feel very glad that I have read it, is that I now I feel I understand the passions and story of the fight against apartheid in South Africa in a way I could never have hoped to glean from any other source. I think I now understand, as much as any white person can understand, what it must have felt to be the wrong colour in this place - the way the system could cause you to feel dirty, inferior and hopeless.
A TOUCH OF THE SUN has changed the way I see the world, will be a book I shall always remember, and given the renaming of that multi-purpose hall a new significance.