The book tells of a family of Lithuanian immigrants to Cape Town, South Africa in the early 1900’s, drawing on Miller’s own childhood memories of the city. The story is about the hardships encountered by Sara, a recent widow, and her five children as they try to settle in a new country where apartheid is rife and the white people around them are either anti-Semitic Boers or new Jewish immigrants like themselves. Unlike themselves, though, many of the Jews around them are happy with segregated South Africa. Moreover, they’re social climbers and prone to interfere in and gossip about the misfortunes of others.
It’s potentially great fodder for a story, but unfortunately Miller’s characters are insufficiently developed and don’t spring to life. Part of the problem is the words that come out of their mouths. They don’t feel a natural fit with the characters and their respective ages — primarily the teenager Lieba, whose thoughts are reflected in a discourse that’s totally out of line with her age.
This makes In a Pale Blue Light a difficult read, though for anyone who lived in South Africa, and particularly those readers of Lithuanian stock, it offers some interesting insights into the challenges experienced by their recent ancestors.