Get a Life, by Nadine Gordimer

Cold comfort in a warm climate
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Paul Bannerman is a South African ecologist recovering from thyroid cancer, whose treatment has left him temporarily radioactive, a danger to anyone coming into contact with him. Prepared to risk their own safety, his parents have taken him back into his old home to protect his wife and young child. Here, isolated, infantilised and literally untouchable, Paul spends hours in the garden, pondering his status as a "new leper".

Arriving dazed, "outside the continuity of his life", he plunges inwards, coming to realise how deep is the chasm between his environmental concerns and the career of his wife, Berenice. She works in an advertising agency that represents global concerns seeking to bring further developmental disaster to his beloved wilderness.

Nadine Gordimer has always forged links between personal and wider issues, a resonance that is powerful when it works. In this novel, the body becomes a threatened environment. Truth and reconciliation, words with special meaning in South Africa, are meaningfully used in the private sphere. An image of the destruction of the Twin Towers heralds an inner holocaust. But for this kind of thing to work fully, you need to care about the characters, and the crucial element missing here is empathy.

Emotion is described but not conveyed, so detached is the omniscient narration. The characters are laid before us like specimens on a board, unsubstantial creatures as flat as diagrams in a text book.

The prose is alternately a joy and an irritation. Sometimes it's quick and impressionistic; sometimes wilfully convoluted, using punctuation to trip you up. Then again, much is beautifully, meditatively poetic, as with the garden "where the company of jacaranda fronds finger the same breeze that brushed the boy's soft cheek". Indeed, so many good poems are scattered in the ponderous flow of this book that they should be sifted out like gold and presented as a slim volume.

Carol Birch's novel 'The Naming of Eliza Quinn' is published by Virago