The 1991 Nobel winner’s 14th novel is one of her most provocative books: an unsparing analysis of the permutations—and ramifications—of commitment and fidelity, endangerment and survival.
Its initial crisis is the personal one afflicting 30ish white South African Paul Bannerman, an ecologist dedicated to protecting the pristine African environment from commercial overdevelopment. Diagnosed with malignant thyroid cancer, Bannerman is treated with a “destructive [chemical] substance” that renders him temporarily radioactive, removing him from contact with his wife Berenice (“Benni”) and young son and placing him under a kind of benign house arrest in the home of his still-nurturing parents Lyndsay and Adrian. Gordimer employs this confinement as a stage for revelations of her major characters’ contrasted and intertwined professional and personal lives. Benni is a successful advertising copywriter, whose clients include commercial enterprises her husband opposes. Paul’s father Adrian is a retired businessman with a passion for archaeology left unrequited during the early years of his long marriage to Lyndsay, who is still, in her 60s, a busy civil-rights lawyer. Gordimer has a tendency to tip her hand, and spell out themes (e.g., Benni’s lament “why must her man take on the survival of the whole bloody world, and now himself a threatened species?”). But her terse, slashing prose compels attention, and she shares Saul Bellow’s ability to make discursive commentary vividly dramatic. And as the novel’s initially simple plot cunningly exfoliates, Paul’s re-entry into the world of family and work encounters ironic complications, as does his parents’ seemingly rock-like marriage, which endures separation, failed communication and—in an irony worthy of Sophocles—Lyndsay’s accession to a judgeship. Yes, this is a talky novel, but if the conscience of South Africa hasn’t earned the right to have her say, who has?
One of our great writers at her challenging, blistering best. Mandatory reading.