Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer has been writing brilliant, thought-provoking novels for years, and Get a Life is no exception. The story deals with a family facing its own challenges in contrast to the challenges facing a post-Apartheid, environmentally impacted South Africa. Illness, environmental problems, marriages and relationship, survival, shifts and changes in life parallel shifts and changes in the country and the earth.
When we first meet Paul, he is faced with a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. Given treatment which makes him radioactive and thus a danger to those around him, Paul will not risk the health of his wife or child. He goes into isolation, staying with his parents. His parents take on the role without question or thought. The reason for this is put simply:
‘Parents are responsible for bringing into the world their progeniture whether deliberately or carelessly and theirs is an unwritten covenant that the life of the child, and by descent the child's child, is to be valued above that of the original progenitors.’
This isolation and Paul’s musing in the garden of his childhood leads to reflections for Paul and for his mother, changing their lives forever.
It is ironic that Paul is an activist/ecologist working to prevent developments in the South African bush, yet the treatment that saves him is the enemy of all conservationists: radiation. Other ironies become apparent. Paul’s past with his wife is replayed in his garden reflections as he is required to wave to her and his son over the fence, revealing that she works for the people he wishes to stop developing the naked, untouched bush land of his country.
Gordimer is famous not only for excellent, to-the-point prose but also for developing her characters against a background of the political turmoil facing her country and pulling no punches. There has been some criticism that this novel, dealing with post-Apartheid South Africa, is quiet on political issues, focusing on the environment and forgetting the turbulent past that turned neighbor against neighbor on the basis of color.
This novel is first and foremost a story of ideas and relationships, environmental protection versus monetary gain. As always, the setting has a part to play on its own. When Paul goes to live with his parents in isolation, the black housekeeper, Primrose, is treated well, almost as part of the family, but it is still obvious through Gordimer’s clever, subtle additions to an otherwise politically neutral discussion, that she is ‘the help’ and somehow still not equal to her white employers;
‘The tall heavy woman, ageing gourd filled with a life of many troubles, rather than a delicate yellow flower, who had never before been called into the living room to sit down and talk with her employers, nevertheless gave them the uninhibited attention their good relations, her considerate working conditions and excellent pay, she found naturally called for…’
Also thrown into casual general conversation, in addition to the general musing on the quality of coffee at the newest café or the changes in the weather, are comments on how much easier it is now to make friends with black people and actually have somewhere to meet them to chat, given that the coffee shops now allow them in. Can any of us who are not South African imagine a general musing like that in our daily life? Gordimer has not sold out but once again cleverly shown that all is not well in South Africa without making a boring, overly political novel.
Of course, differences are notable when comparing to Gordimer’s earlier books written at the height of Apartheid. Her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Conservationist, features heightened cultural and political tension, as does one of my favorites of hers, None to Accompany Me. Both are noted works which deal with people living through the turbulent times in South Africa. The former, the story of a white man choosing to buy a farm, and the latter, the story of a woman representing blacks who are trying to reclaim land, were topical to the times but feature first and foremost vibrant characters coping with life. In this, Get a Life does not differ.
Gordimer’s style is all her own. Few compare to her in the field of South African writers, an exception being J.M. Coetzee, another Booker Prize winner who also features the political landscape in his novels yet brings alive vibrant characters.
Get a Life is a study in contrasts. Paul’s life changes dramatically after his return home, and he throws himself into his work while refusing to give his wife her much-desired second child. This is juxtaposed with his parents’ willingness to face death to care for him despite their own troubles, which his mother muses on. A trip to Mexico for Paul’s parents changes all their lives even more.
There is perhaps too much environmental jargon, but then again it certainly makes the reader aware as to why people like Paul try so hard to stop developments. The theme of contamination runs throughout the book: Paul’s own, his country’s, and finally the introduction of an HIV-positive child and further questions of illness and the untouchable.
One of the most poignant moments in this novel is a visit to a wildlife reserve and the observation of two eagles, which brings things and Paul’s musings full circle. The eagles have two chicks, Cain and Abel. The first-born, Cain, will eventually throw Abel from the nest. Paul actually questions his own ideas of conservation at all costs and thinks that the development he opposes could bring jobs and help end poverty for many people:
"And if Abel has to be thrown from the nest by Cain; isn't that for a greater survival. The eagle allows this to happen, its all-powerful wings cannot prevail against it."
There are some resolutions in this novel, yet they paradoxically create more questions. Relationships change, parenthood and marriage are seen in totally opposing lights. Gordimer has written a touching, deeply human story that will provoke thoughts about your own life, beliefs and relationships. What sacrifices would you make? How sure are of you of what you believe in?
The book is written in an unusual style with little punctuation and dashes indicating dialogue, which some readers might find difficult to read. Yet I think Gordimer’s intent may be to reflect how we think, without punctuation and quotation marks, and strangely it suits the style of the novel, given the reflections of Paul and his mother.
The title sounds rather lackluster, even hokey, but its use in the novel is done with Gordimer’s signature asperity;
‘ …Get a life, man! – Let’s make up and bring a high-profile party of save-the-earthers to come as observers of what’s at stake- not the low voltage ones we’ve had – some pop stars who’ll compose songs for us, come rap for the planet, prove they’re good world citizens…it’s cool now for the famous to take up causes-‘
Who says Gordimer is no longer getting her political point across?
This book is exceptionally well-written and a highly enjoyable read, and I recommend it enthusiastically to both Gordimer fans and those new to her. Her style is unruffled and free of flourishes yet still descriptive enough to pull the reader in, subtly getting them thinking about their lives and what people live with every day and just accept.