The Conservationist is an in-depth character study of Mehring, a South African businessman-cum-farmer. His success in industry provided the means to buy a 400-acre farm, which serves primarily as a tax write-off. In his quest for material success, Mehring has lost his wife and a mistress. His teenage son attends school some distance away, and has become increasingly independent -- estranged, perhaps -- from his father. Mehring mistakenly views interaction with the black laborers on his farm as a meaningful relationship. In reality, the South African class structure ensures their relationship remains distant.
I found Mehring to be a fairly despicable and pathetic character, which I believe was Gordimer's intent. He is a philanderer, at one point fondling a young lady he'd never met for the better part of a long-haul flight. Yech. And while at times he seems to appreciate the natural beauty of his farm, he has no one to share it with him. His time spent at the farm is empty, a way to pass the weekend or to hide from social obligations.
This was a difficult book to read because the main character was so unlikeable, and it revolved much more around character than plot. However, Gordimer writes some pretty amazing, descriptive prose that brought the South African scenery to life. Despite my rather lukewarm reaction to this particular novel, I will definitely be reading more of her work.
My original review can be found here.