cover image Get a Life

Get a Life

Nadine Gordimer, . . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20 (187pp) ISBN 978-0-374-16170-5

The phrase "late work" is usually reserved for masters, and it is appropriate to this 14th novel from Gordimer, whose cruel meditations on mortality and commitment are enacted within two marriages a generation apart. Paul Bannerman, a 35-year-old activist ecologist who works to prevent development of the South African bush, is diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Following radiation treatment, he stays with his parents, Adrian and Lyndsay; his ad exec wife, Berenice (Benni), and toddler son, Nicholas, visit him, but must avoid contact with Paul while he's radioactive. During Paul's stay, Gordimer sounds the depths of Paul and Benni's connection (shallow but sometimes tender) and replays Adrian and Lyndsay's turbulent (but on the surface, placid) past together. Paul and Benni's professional lives are at odds (she does ads for developers); Adrian chucked a potential career as an archeologist to advance Lyndsay's as a lawyer. When Paul returns home, change comes very rapidly—and dramatically—for everyone. Gordimer's narrator is chilly, remote and omniscient, toying with the characters and taking shots at them at almost every opening, particularly the two career-women: "How girlishly exciting it must have been," says the narrator of Lyndsay's past affair, begun at a conference. Paul's vulnerable, mortal body and everyone's life choices are relentlessly, tauntingly picked over in a manner that is spare and quick to the point of offhandedness. The result is a lacerating novel, one in which conflicted professional and domestic lives are played for all their contradictory possibility. (Dec.)