Review

Get a Life

by Nadine Gordimer



Don't let the slangy title of this Nobel Prize winner's 14th novel
mislead you --- light is one thing GET A LIFE is not. But like many
challenging works of art, this one is worthwhile.

Nadine Gordimer tackles large-scale themes of conservation and
survival, death and compromise, through the vehicle of a
privileged, white South African family navigating several crises.
The first is the necessity of Paul Bannerman, a thirty-something
ecologist, to be physically isolated due to radiation treatments
for an aggressive form of thyroid cancer. His parents, Lyndsay and
Adrian, take him in for several weeks, while his wife Benni and
their son Nickie must settle for distant waves from outside the
garden fence. During this unnatural time, Paul drifts back out to
the garden of his childhood, and contemplates the tension between
his own career as a conservationist and his wife's executive
position at an advertising agency for firms that would pollute and
degrade the very environments he fights to protect. Small wonder
that when he returns home, old patterns fray and everyone treads
lightly.

Although they do not fight, Paul bluntly rejects Benni's suggestion
that they try to conceive another child, and the reader wonders
whether or not the marriage can survive. But part two of the novel
switches focus to the relationship of Paul's parents. It begins
with 59-year-old Lyndsay's reminiscences of the affair she had
while in her 40s. The affair lasted for four years, at the end of
which she informed her husband Adrian that it had been, and that it
was, over. At first jarring, this revelation gives meaning to later
developments as Paul's retired father Adrian pursues his avocation
of archeology in Mexico.

As usual with Gordimer, her symbols sparkle, functioning on many
levels. A trip to a wildlife preserve to view a breeding pair of
Black Eagles becomes a meditation on both beauty and the cruel
realities of survival. "The first egg laid hatches and is followed
about a week later by a second. The two chicks, known as Cain and
Abel. The first-born, Cain has already grown when Abel comes out of
his shell. Cain and Abel fight and generally Abel is killed by Cain
and thrown from the nest." Later Paul thinks of this in relation to
the dams he opposes, recognizing that the dams could end poverty
for thousands of 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."

Gordimer eschews quotation marks entirely, and question marks
mostly, using dashes to set off dialogue. Careful reading is
required at times to distinguish between the characters' internal
thoughts and their spoken dialogue. She also is not hampered by
conventional grammar. Sentences with no predicate clause abound,
and reading this book is often like trying to listen to four
conversations at once, about four different topics. This is
how we think, and the technique serves to pull us closer in to the
character's point of view, if we take the time to follow the
threads.

The Kirkus review of this book refers to the "exfoliation"
of the plot, and after I rolled my eyes, I looked up the word and
found it an apt description. The plot really does come off in
layers, and the reader must simply sign on for the ride and let the
multiple meanings come through.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 22, 2011

Get a Life
by Nadine Gordimer

  • Publication Date: October 31, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143037927
  • ISBN-13: 9780143037927