Get a Life, by Nadine Gordimer

She's a verb short of a full sentence, that one

Nadine Gordimer was anointed in 1991, a year after Nelson Mandela's release from prison marked the birth of the new South Africa, on the strength of novels in which she dissected the social tensions of apartheid through the microcosm of family relationships. Her new novel, Get A Life, has none of this state-of-the-nation stuff; the Bannerman family represents nothing but itself.

At the age of 35, Paul Bannerman, an ecologist, is diagnosed with thyroid cancer. While he is in quarantine, his nearest and dearest reassess their lives. His formidable mother, Lyndsay, a successful constitutional lawyer, recalls an affair of 15 years ago. His father, the distant, shadowy Adrian, "was told" about her adultery and gradually his resentment has grown. Now retired, he wants to travel abroad, preferably to the Arctic. The emotional dislocations that ensue add layers of meaning to the book's title.

Paul wants a second child and his wife Berenice, a shallow, ambitious advertising executive, agrees. Berenice has arrived at the realisation that she "was prepared to lose some of her energy, her drive towards success after success, to give her body over to the disadvantages of distortion and accept the distracting, absorbing emotions of loving care for an infant". Not exactly a spontaneous outpouring of love. Indeed, Gordimer seems to be carrying a torch for cynicism. Human interest in the romantic lives of others is "pruriently curious", com-passion over a disaster is "their syrup of sympathy".

Gordimer's hauteur has never been reader-friendly. For slow, present-tense narratives to work, the prose has to sparkle; Gordimer's sentences are frequently a main verb short. The opening line - "Only the street-sweeper swishing his broom to collect fallen leaves from the gutter" (full stop) - is a sign of things to come. Neither does the flat, unrelieved omniscience of the authorial voice rise above the two-dimensional. Worst of all is the sloppiness. "He bribed the child to go to the care of the nanny (politically-correct: child-minder)" is typical. These parenthetically appended afterthoughts are disruptive and ugly, and it's unclear whether they are being attributed to the characters.

In place of a plot, a static, introspective story focuses on the ironies of four people in search of a new life. Paul gets radiation therapy while opposing plans to build a nuclear reactor. Adrian is born again when inspecting the archaeological remains of a dead people. Lyndsay reaps what she sowed. And the author can't resist a cheap, trendy swipe at the alleged hypocrisy of America's stand on nuclear non-proliferation.

As the Bannerman family falls apart, so too does the reader's patience with the author's disregard for characters and audience alike.