• ©
  • Charlie Hopkinson

Gillian Slovo

  • South Africa


Novelist Gillian Slovo was born in 1952 in South Africa, the daughter of Joe Slovo, leader of the South African Communist party, and Ruth First, a journalist who was murdered in 1982.

Gillian Slovo has lived in England since 1964, working as a writer, journalist and film producer. Her first novel, Morbid Symptoms (1984), began a crime fiction series featuring female detective Kate Baeier. Other novels in the series include Death by Analysis (1986), Death Comes Staccato (1987), Catnap (1994) and Close Call (1995). Her other novels include Ties of Blood (1989), The Betrayal (1991) and Red Dust (2000), a courtroom drama set in contemporary South Africa, which explores the effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country (1997) is a moving account of her childhood in South Africa and her relationship with her parents, both heavily involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

Ice Road (2004), set in Leningrad in 1933, explores an Arctic winter in Stalin's Russia; family ties, love and loyalty are all tested to the limits, uncovering the dark effects of Soviet communism on the human spirit. It was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction.Gillian Slovo lives in London. Her most recent novel is Black Orchids (2008), about a Sinhalese family who move to England in the 1950s.

Critical perspective

Writing, for Gillian Slovo, is best described as a process of interrogation into what happens when individual lives are caught up in political events.

Her later work in particular has been a means of exploring, both directly and obliquely, the history of her parents' involvement in anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, and of acknowledging the effects of that involvement on their children. Her unique insight into the complex interweaving of personal with public has made her a poignant, if sometimes cynical, commentator on the slow, traumatic processes of liberation and reform.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the levels of political intrigue which surrounded her as a child growing up in South Africa, Slovo's initial literary departures were through the thriller. Several early novels, including her first, Morbid Symptoms (1984), feature the character of Kate Baeier, the journalist turned private investigator whose cold but committed personality is perfectly adapted to the crime genre. Though formulaic, these are nonetheless stylish novels which update with skill and economy the influence of writers such as Raymond Chandler.

Increasingly however, Slovo's writing adopted a political edge. Death by Analysis (1986), for example, situates the murder of a psychoanalyst against a backdrop of London's 1981 civil unrest and a legacy of betrayed 1960s radicalism. Other novels draw even more closely on her own political experience. The Betrayal (1991), a political thriller about the trial of a white ANC member and his love affair with an English woman, touches on material drawn directly from her first-hand knowledge of South Africa and its climate of conspiracy and corruption, while Façade (1993) successfully splices the thriller format with autobiography, in the story of a woman attempting to discover the truth behind the circumstances of her mother's death and her father's work for an international relief organisation. Thriller fiction was clearly developing, for Slovo, as a context for confrontation and engagement with her own past, rather than as a means of escape from it.

This process of confrontation took a new turn when Slovo addressed her family history directly in her memoir, Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country (1997). A highly moving account of her mother Ruth, her father Joe, and their commitment to radical anti-apartheid activism in 1960s and 1970s South Africa, this is also an evocative autobiographical study of a vulnerable child immersed in a world of adult secrecy, and enduring an environment of anxiety and insecurity. Slovo's memories of exclusion from her parents's clandestine and covert engagements, and of her isolation from their systems of codes and disguises, suggest a childhood ironically positioned between love and neglect, and propelled too soon along the path from innocence to experience. 


Recognition of the political pressures under which she and her sisters grew up make this an extraordinarily honest self-portrait. Slovo admits to ambivalence in her feelings towards her mother, a woman whose ideological heroism on behalf of the wider South African family inevitably involved the abandoning of her own daughters. Presented here as 'both the best of mothers and the worst', Ruth Slovo epitomises a conflict between love and duty. As the author recalls, '[w]hen she turned the full light of her attention our way she could dazzle. And yet, so often, her mind was elsewhere.' Similar problems emerge in the second half of this book, in which Slovo addresses her relationship with her father. In this case, the schism between private and public is dramatically exposed during the course of Joe Slovo's final illness, as he and his daughter battle over access to the material of his life. It is a battle which continues even after his death, as his long-held secrets are slowly revealed: the fake passport he carried, the love affairs he conducted, and the son he neither knew nor acknowledged. 

In her memoir, Slovo struggles with the tension between family experience and national history. The anguish of her position is most acute in the concluding sections of Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, where she describes her face-to-face confrontation with the man responsible for the assassination of her mother. The interview in which this takes place is riddled with anger and grief, not simply for the murdered Ruth Slovo but for the failure of justice generally in the country, as the crimes of the apartheid era are painstakingly uncovered. Undoubtedly, such material was easier to deal with in a work of fiction, and Slovo acknowledges that her subsequent novel, Red Dust (2000), emerged directly as a result of her mother's death. 'The seeds of it were born', she wrote, 'out of my grave-side realisation that if the country would not leave me alone, then I would have to face it'.

The fact that Red Dust deploys once again the genre of the political thriller gives the author a kind of imaginative liberation from her own life, allowing her to process - as fiction - not only memories of South Africa's violent past but also the failures of the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal effectively with that troubled legacy. The plot features a lawyer, Sarah Barcant, who returns to South Africa from New York to trace the disappearance of a young ANC activist, and who discovers in the process a web of guilt, deception and betrayal. As the extent of corruption on all sides is revealed, it seems the concept of truth itself must be put on trial. How can any 'truth' commission succeed? Or as Sarah demands: 'Whose truth exactly…the torturer's or the freedom fighter's? The policeman's or the terrorist's?'. Justice eludes the protagonists, and truth becomes the first casualty of a post-apartheid peace.

The ambitious novel, Ice Road (2004), is a departure in terms of setting and subject matter, taking Slovo away from South Africa and the political thriller to 1930s and 40s Leningrad. Set in the years between Stalin’s purges and the siege of the city, it explores the devastating effects of the vast programme of political experimentation during the early Soviet years on the life of the individual, most powerfully through the penetrating observations of lowly cleaner Irina Davydovna, through whose voice much of the novel is written and whose role is that of a witness:  'What do I know of power?' she asks. 'Of conquest? Of position? I should not have opinions: I should not judge. What I should do instead is watch.' However, Slovo herself acknowledged that the novel arose from a need to interrogate the Soviet betrayal of socialist ideals:

‘One of the questions that I started the book with is, what do you do when you want to change the world for the better, and you seem to have achieved power, and then everything that you dreamed and hoped for becomes changed and tarnished and destroyed, but in the name of those ideals? How do people survive that? And what are the costs of that survival?’ (The Guardian, 2004).

Her next project again looked at how individual lives can be caught up and squashed by a political machine, and again marked a significant departure in theme and form. The documentary drama, Guantanamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’ (2005), written in collaboration with journalist Victoria Brittain for the Tricycle Theatre in London, is a piece of verbatim theatre, examining the detentions of those accused of terrorism at the US prison camp in Cuba following the invasion of Afghanistan, by weaving together the testimonies, collated from interview, of detainees, their families and lawyers with other statements, speeches and news conferences. A powerful example of contemporary political theatre, the play’s composition skilfully combines acute attention to specific cases of injustice with profound moral criticism of the geopolitical structure that led to their happening.

Slovo’s eleventh novel, Black Orchids (2008), opens in colonial Ceylon in the 1940s, as a white Sri Lankan born woman, Evelyn, meets and falls in love with a Sinhalese man, Emil. The novel follows the married couple to London, subsequently deconstructing attitudes to race in 1950s England and, later, the relationship between Emil and his mixed race son Milton, in a fast moving narrative examining the problems of post colonial identity. The power of Slovo's writing, and its effectiveness as political commentary, stem ultimately from its reliance on two very different perspectives; the first, a close personal engagement with a transitional South Africa, and the second an imaginative distance, created through the fictional reconstruction of that same landscape. Later works have reached beyond South Africa, as Slovo has proved herself capable of exploring the political landscapes specific to other times and places. Her writing suggests, in the end, that the novel, and the thriller format in particular, is an important means of liberating both personal and political reminiscence - a means of raising in fictional terms the questions which remain too painful for the arena of fact. 

Eve Patten/Guy Woodward, 2009


Black Orchids
Guantanamo: 'Honor Bound to Defend Freedom'
Ice Road
Red Dust
Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country
Close Call
The Betrayal
Ties of Blood
Death Comes Staccato
Death by Analysis
Morbid Symptoms


Orange Prize for Fiction