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The World that was Ours (Classic edition)

by Hilda Bernstein

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781906462093

'This has survived as a South African classic not just because it's beautifully written,' wrote Anthony Sampson in the Spectator, 'but because it conveys the combination of ordinariness and danger which is implicit in any totalitarian state.' The World that was Ours is a memoir about the events leading up to the 1964 Rivonia Trial when Hilda Bernstein's husband Rusty was acquitted but Mandela and the 'men of Rivonia' received life sentences.

The book starts by describing, in heartstopping detail, the twenty-four hours during which Hilda waits to hear the verdict of the trial, then fills in the background to the previous ten years. This is interwoven with domestic detail (babysitters have to be arranged even when an underground newspaper is being produced) and lyrical description of the South African landscape: the book was after all written in Camden Town by an exile heartsick with longing for her country.  

After Rusty was acquitted it was Hilda who was at risk, with the start of a new wave of arrests. She was at home loading the washing machine when the Special Branch came to the front door. 'And I am at the end of the garden among the trees, as they arrive at both the front and back doors, in less than thirty seconds. Somewhere behind me, in a kitchen never to be entered again, the washing machine is going into its rinsing cycle, the pressure cooker sends out its puffs of steam, the children are unaware that I have gone. The bright winter sun illuminates the normality of Saturday morning in a Johannesburg suburb.'

'This passionately political memoir,' observed The Times, 'is vibrant with the dilemmas of everyday family life, quick-witted dialogue, fast-paced adventure and novelistic detail.' Yet the political background is not dwelt on: it is simply taken for granted that civilised South Africans fought apartheid and the uncivilised propped it up. The main strength of the book is as an outstanding personal memoir; in this respect it bears comparison with autobiographies by Nadezhda Mandelstam and Christabel Bielenberg, which also describe traumatic twentieth-century events through the prism of a woman's gaze. Two worlds are being destroyed in the book, the public world of political activism and the private world of domestic happiness. 

'It reads like a thriller page after page... The loveliest of Hilda Bernstein's works about the ugliest of her times' said Albie Sachs in the Independent.

Also available as a Persephone Grey and as a Persephone e-book.  

Read What Readers Say

sarahs89reads via Instagram

Moving and powerfully told, this is a fascinating and relevant account of people standing up for their convictions.

bookstagramofonesown via Instagram

Incredible… A truly powerful and unforgettable book.

Simon Savidge (blogger)

‘The World That Was Ours’ shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir… It is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.

Categories: Classics

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