Nadine Gordimer is a prolific author with countless novels, short stories and essays to her name. Her writing earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and she has continued to attract the highest praise.
No Time Like The Present furthers her loving scrutiny of her homeland, South Africa. It features a marriage between a white man and a black woman who were both active and left-leaning in the struggle against apartheid. After completing his studies, Steve takes on a mundane job in a paint factory and makes explosives to blow up the regime on the side.
Jabu's forward-thinking father had sent her to be educated and train as a teacher in Swaziland (ahead of her younger brother). She retrains as a lawyer and gets work at the Justice Centre while Steve moves to a university position.
The novel is a slow read. I liken it to knitting where you have to remain ultra-focused or you'll drop a stitch. You need to get into the rhythm of the sentences along with the rhythm of the voices. It is as though the narrator is speaking without a filter and there is a dense accumulation of detail that takes you back in time and then keeps you in the present.
Once you get into the sway of the detail and the stream-of-consciousness present, you reap the rewards. This is a story of the aftermath of apartheid and of the dimensions of freedom - an intense examination of the new South Africa.
It is as though it is still too soon for a story (perhaps we could see this as a love story) to be written without the sticky imprint of apartheid. A character asks, "How is it people who are with each other are so long apart?" The novel shows us, then, one particular version of the "how".
Gordimer's hard gaze at the present reveals an utter love of place and people, but it also reveals poverty, corruption, hierarchies (the haves and the have-nots), enormous unemployment, illiteracy, refugees and catastrophic gaps in education.
There are many moving and powerful strands of scrutiny, but one that stands out is the power of language. Language is not just a tool of communication but a tool of emancipation. Jabu had acquired Gandhi's words from her father: "It is unfortunate we use the language of the oppressor to speak for our freedom."
Jabu is armed with knowledge and several languages and the question is raised as to why the language of the oppressed is never an entry into the world and embraced by the world.
Gordimer has tilted and flipped and side-kicked English so it gains a different and addictive fluency. This can be read as a political gesture, but it also serves the lovingly crafted narrative of place and people.
Other big questions reverberate: what will the politicians do to wipe out or "make good" what the whites did? And, on the level of the family: is it possible to leave and build a new life in a country such as Australia?
No Time Like the Present is an astonishing read.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.