Nature is dying; that's a given in Nadine Gordimer's new novel. Gordimer's not out to convince anyone of nature's death. She simply...

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“Get a Life”
by Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
187 pp., $21

Nature is dying; that’s a given in Nadine Gordimer’s new novel. Gordimer’s not out to convince anyone of nature’s death. She simply assumes it as a done deal and carries on from there.

That assumption alone makes “Get a Life” a strangely chilling read. There’s no argument or polemic or evidence. We’ve gone beyond all that, Gordimer implies. There’s just a single question: How do we live with the knowledge that we’re destroying the last of the wild places?

The person grappling with this question is Paul Bannerman, a South African conservation worker in his thirties. He lives an upper-middle-class, urban life with its typical (and, Gordimer implies, inevitable) hypocrisies: While Paul’s out saving the world, his wife, Berenice, does advertising work for clients who are destroying it with their dams and developments.

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Paul and Berenice’s well-oiled Johannesburg life comes to a halt when Paul is diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He’s given radiation treatment to kill the cancer, which unfortunately renders him radioactive for a period of a few weeks. In order to protect his wife and small son, Paul moves in with his parents for the duration. At Paul’s parents’ house, life is just as intelligent and well-padded as at his own home with Berenice. Paul’s mother, Lyndsey, is a civil-rights lawyer and his father, Adrian, is a businessman with a lifelong avocation for archaeology.

Paul spends his quarantine in the wilderness of his parents’ garden, utterly alone, a man literally apart. When he re-emerges into the world, the novel’s emphasis shifts to Lyndsey and Adrian, whose seemingly eternal marriage proves fragile.

Gordimer is dealing with the notion that all that stuff we thought was forever, isn’t. This is a somewhat massive theme and it makes for a strange fit in this small book about a small family. But Gordimer has always had a knack for linking the universal to the personal.

I suspect it’s her anger that forges the link. She keeps saying, aggrievedly: Look what we’ve done now.