Something of a teenage prodigy, Nadine Gordimer published her first story in a Johannesburg magazine before the Second World War. Her debut collection, Face to Face, appeared in 1949, just after apartheid became state policy in South Africa but before its cornerstones were laid. Now, aged 88, after 14 novels, ten volumes of stories, multiple book-bannings by the apartheid state and scores of landmark essays (not to mention the Nobel and Booker prizes), she returns with an impassioned family saga of post-liberation dreams, shocks and fears, as alert and nuanced – tormented, even – as any of her works. You would need to go back to the 19th century, and the career of a Victor Hugo, to find another example of a major writer who has listened so closely, for so long, to a nation's beating heart.
No Time Like The Present follows the fortunes of one family and their friends in a Johannesburg suburb between the mid-1990s and the end of 2009, with the populist Jacob Zuma installed as the democratic state's third president and the World Cup eagerly awaited. Steve, who has a Jewish mother and Anglo father, met Jabulile, the Zulu daughter of a headmaster and granddaughter of a Methodist pastor, in the bush camps of Swaziland while both fought for Umkhonto we Sizwe: the armed wing of the ANC. Indeed, Steve – who applied his training as an industrial chemist to the concoction of explosives to blow up power plants – would have counted as a "terrorist" to Mrs Thatcher and her ministers.
After years of illegal living in the shadows, this mixed couple with their impeccable pedigree rank as the aristocracy of the revolution, and gifted daughter Sindiswa as "the first infant progeny of a new age". In Mandela's new dawn, the parents and their "child of change" – soon joined by a son, Gary Elias - move to the "Suburb". From its friendly gay household to its fellow-veterans of the Struggle, this bohemian "enclave of human variety" serves as a microcosm of the nation in transition. Or rather, of its bourgeois fraction, black and white: the novel shows how class can supplant colour as a toxic source of division in a country that stubbornly still ranks as "the most unequal in the world".
Jabu and Steve have always put public commitment ahead of private happiness - battle-scarred survivors of a time when a strike by the apartheid regime could leave any comrade dead in the dust and "the nuclear family was not, could not be, the defining human unit". "Freedom demands everything," and that was what they gave. Now, both wonder whether they deserve "the normal life, the one that never was". We see in fragments what that means: jovial lunches with their stalwart gay neighbours, Steve's move into university life as a lecturer, Jabu's upward shift from teacher to public-interest lawyer. Yet a troubled history, and its tough outcomes, shape both their emotions and the novel's progress.
Not only in classics such as Burger's Daughter and The Conservationist, but throughout her work, Gordimer has woven personal and public passions together so tightly that even her characters' language of intimate reflection carries a freight of great events. Both wife and husband may dream of "a life where the personal comes first". But in their South Africa – as the rock of the ANC cracks into corruption and demagoguery, as positive-discrimination policies turn Steve's university upside down, as comrade-entrepreneurs with friends in high places evolve into "reborn clones of apartheid bosses", or as desperate migrants from Zimbabwe and other failed states become the new, despised underclass – it never really does. In Gordimer's gnarled and knotty prose – not always a graceful medium, but crackling with a dialectical charge of feelings, ideas and intuitions – we sense history at work not simply in the head but on the skin and in the flesh. She writes the body politic.
With her impacted syntax and unsettling, even opaque, diction, late-period Gordimer can test the reader as much as late Henry James. Yet at best her free-style, high-velocity storytelling delivers a visceral immediacy and intensity that lets us inhabit the minds, and share the views, of her characters with the minimum of novelistic fuss. What an instructive contrast her mature style affords to the ironic and Olympian detachment of her compatriot JM Coetzee: another towering talent, but one who on every possible level took a different path.
The novel acquires extra momentum when Steve's disenchantment leads him to plan emigration to Australia. This "will they, won't they?" strand accelerates a plot that, until then, anchors itself in the headlines: although, for such political animals, a crooked arms deal or student riot feels as close to home as a child's rebellion or an adulterous affair. Closer, in fact: invited to a conference in England, Steve has a brief fling with a PR manager at her family's Norfolk home. He enjoys this pastoral interlude, written in a more relaxed and fluid vein, as "a snatch of the alternative". But it means nothing: not for him, not for the plot. Reality stays at home with Jabu.
Gordimer takes an epigraph from the poet – and ANC veteran - Keorapetse Kgositsile: "Cynicism would be a reckless luxury". That, more or less, captures the mood of her principals. Nonetheless, their disaffection deepens with every sign that political business-as-usual, along with the widening chasm between rich and poor, has supplanted revolutionary idealism. Written with a ferocious, high-definition attentiveness, scenes such a visit to the squalor of the "Zim" refugee camp strain hope to its snapping-point. Sindi and Gary Elias come to look, for Steve at least, like "children in whose very conception there was faith in a present that hasn't come". Even Jabu's upright father, a paragon of principle and dignity, dismays his daughter by backing the shameless rabble-rouser Zuma, a fellow-Zulu.
Yet Gordimer will never let apartheid, and the soul-deep wounds it inflicted, off her moral hook. The idea of the initiation ritual supplies a running motif: Xhosa circumcision, Zulu bull-fighting, barmitzvahs in the Suburb, even the racist humiliation of cleaning staff at Orange Free State University in 2008 – here, a graphic symbol of all those unhealed scars. Likewise, we can read the disappointments and frustrations of Steve and Jabu as the pained response to a fledgling democracy's rough rites of passage. "Can you honestly call yourself a nation," Gordimer asks, "only fifteen years after you've been centuries divided by cleaver"? "The country is in its adolescence": such a spurt of change brings little in the way of calm.
A phrase that recurs is Steve's "finish and klaar" - the black-and-white clarity of the old racial state, replaced by every shade of ambiguity. Now, nothing can be "finish and klaar" again: a reason for confusion, even distress, but also for dogged curiosity. This history of freedom isn't past; it has scarcely began. We must hope that Gordimer, a nonpareil observer of the outer and inner life alike, sustains her heroic mission of witness and of warning.
Nadine Gordimer will be appearing as part of the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on Sunday 18 March (bathlitfest.org.uk)