TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer has just published her 15th novel. It's called "No Time Like the Present" and our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Nadine Gordimer's trademark characters live for politics, the struggle. You get the feeling they would be sick to their collective stomachs if they ever even tried to bite into a gourmet cupcake.
And yet the dilemma of Gordimer's latest novel, called "No Time Like the Present," is this - that with the end of apartheid and the creation of something like the promised better life for all in South Africa, also come the well-deserved rewards of retreating into the private realm, pursuing personal ambition, and even succumbing to the occasional frivolity.
Gordimer's characters here live in what they keep referring to as the aftermath, which turns out for them to be a much more morally ambiguous place than the land of apartheid. The complex and conflicted main characters in "No Time Like the Present" are an interracial married couple named Steve and Jabu.
They met as combatants in the fight against apartheid. Steve, who is white, used his professional skills as an industrial chemist to concoct explosives for sabotage operations. Jabu, the daughter of a Zulu Methodist minister, spent hard time in prison for her activism. When Steve and Jabu first fell in love, their relationship was illegal. Now they're married, and the personal life they fought to enjoy threatens to swallow them up.
The novel follows them over the course of about 20 years as they become parents and achieve professional careers. Steve becomes a university professor, Jabu a lawyer. Along the way, they deliberate between themselves and with a ragtag community of former comrades about the ethics of taking a vacation, sending their kids to private school, and buying a nice house in the suburbs when so many of their fellow citizens still seek shelter under tin and cardboard.
"No Time Like the Present" is not so much a novel about selling out as it is about sanely navigating around the pitfalls of normalcy, about remaining committed without fossilizing into a zealot. And as this novel underscores, there's still plenty of reform needed in South Africa before anyone can fully relax into self-righteousness.
Gordimer weaves in topical commentary here about the ongoing AIDS epidemic, the refugee problem, and the country's sky-high crime rate. A horrific home invasion all but shoves Steve and Jabu into the decision to emigrate with their kids to Australia.
Like Steve and Jabu and their friends, Gordimer herself refuses to kick back in the La-Z-Boy and let up on the intensity of her social vision and language. So many quick passages in "No Time Like the Present" convey the jolt of authenticity. Thinking, for instance, about his disappointment in politics, Steve contents himself with the thought that at least his teaching is going well.
But Gordimer slyly prods us readers away from sharing Steve's complacency. She writes: What's called in psychological jargon job satisfaction's a distraction from political disillusion.
Most novels these days don't look farther than their front yards for their subject matter, or sometimes just the bottom of the protagonist's shot glass; Gordimer, however, like her great Eastern European contemporary Milan Kundera, sees history, power and a gnawing desire for something secular yet encompassing entwined in every mundane gesture. The personal remains political even when the great political struggle has been won.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Nadine Gordimer's new novel, "No Time Like the Present." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.