"My Son's Story" illuminates the evolving political situation of South Africa in profound and subtle personal terms.

It deals with honorable, fearless response to racial oppression, but also with personal needs that are "terrible - in a magnificent way."It's the story of a leading anti-apartheid activist, told in rich detail that sharply drives home the inexorable interweaving of the individual's family life with public life.

The activist, Sonny, understands renunciation, sacrifice, simply "because the common good outside required this." His political activism brings occasion for shared pride and ideals, but also a need for underground conspiracies and thus the opportunity for betrayal.

The son's anguish, which guides the unfolding story, begins when he discovers that his father has a secret lover, a white woman.

The family is not black, but "colored," in South African terms. Nevertheless, their experience of being non-white under the system of apartheid distorts their lives. "My heart began to thunder like a troop of wild beasts in my chest," says the son, opening the door to the officers' sudden hammering in the dark of night.

Gordimer angles the reader into the family's life with fierce, wounded first-person narration by the son, now grown up and a writer. A detached voice contributes intimate observations of the famous father beyond the son's knowing, and insights from other viewpoints.

The title itself, in the father's voice, suggests his helpless perception of his son's torment. "My son" is a telling personal expression for a man beset by opposing imperatives. Not the least of these is his awareness of his admirable wife, a delicately flowering portrait.

At one point, Sonny accepts with grace being passed over in the movement and finds comfort with his lover. "He took her in his arms as her man, needing no consolation; and so, unsought, it secretly came to him. He could not resist it, although it was not what he wanted. What he wanted, from her, was what no one could give him back; his trust in himself."

For all its political context, this is a story of pain lit with poetry, one of this distinguished writer's most passionately felt works so far.