Winner of Nobel Prize paints powerful portrait of a family in flux

For more than half a century, Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in literature, has chronicled the story of South Africa.

From the darkness of apartheid, to the light of Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk’s constitutional reforms, to the current tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, Gordimer’s writing has focused on the personal effects of South Africa’s evolution.

In her latest work, Get a Life, Gordimer trains her keen, literary eye on the relationships holding together two generations of the Bannerman family in South Africa. As the family struggles with its own inner conflict, their nation struggles to reconcile its own relationship with its heritage. Paul Bannerman, the catalyst of the tale, is a 35-year-old ecologist living in urban South Africa. Between trips to the wilderness with the other ecologists on his “team,” Paul lives with his wife, Berenice, an ad executive, and their young son Nicholas, maintaining a healthy and ordinary balance between his work and home lives. When Paul is diagnosed with thyroid cancer and forced to undergo radiation treatment, however, both of his lives are brought to a halt.

Still radioactive for several weeks after his treatment, Paul, a “21st century leper,” is forced into a kind of quarantine at his parents’ home, who take on the risk of contamination to care for their only son.

Too weak to care for himself, Paul reverts to a childlike state of dependence on his parents. Through her selfless nurturing, Paul’s mother finally develops the tender, adult relationship with her son she had never before realized.

At the same time Paul reevaluates his own relationships at home, recognizing that his wife’s work in the advertising industry runs counter to his own.

Meditating in his parents’ garden, Paul redefines his relationships, drawing closer to his colleagues and his son and subtly distancing himself from his wife and father.

As their tale concludes, the Bannerman family undergoes an agonizing loss and an unusual addition, emerging from it all in another tenuous state of balance.The true power and meaning of Get a Life lies in Gordimer’s remarkable ability to draw parallels – Paul realizes that his family relationships are just as delicate as the beautiful South African ecosystems he struggles to protect.

“People give one another things that can’t be gift wrapped,” writes Gordimer, as she draws both Paul and the reader to the inevitable conclusion that a family, precariously balanced between competing forces, is just as fragile as a nation or an ecosystem. In Get a Life, Nadine Gordimer continues to demonstrate the poignant, prize-winning style that earned her the Nobel laurels over a decade ago, proving that time has not tempered her talent and insight.

Peter Chomko may be reached at

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