Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
The Lying Days (1953), the first novel by Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, opens with an act of defiance. The narrator, Helen Shaw, refuses to join her parents on an outing—a social gathering of the middle-class families of white officials on a South African gold mine. Instead, Helen, who is eight or nine, wanders off into the native township outside the Mine compound, and gets her first glimpse of the lives of black South Africans. In the end, though, Helen wanders back to her parents. This first episode sets the stage for the rest of the the novel, a brilliantly written coming-of-age narrative in which Helen grows in political awareness and feels herself stretched thin between her family's middle-class white values and the pull of bohemianism and dissent. As South Africa descends deeper into apartheid after the election of a Nationalist government in 1948, Helen's position becomes increasingly untenable—her personal struggle to hold onto her identity reflects the struggle of a South Africa divided against itself. The miracle of the novel is that Gordimer keeps Helen's story so firmly grounded in her personal relationships—with her parents, her friends, her lover—that it never becomes a simple statement of protest against the regime of apartheid. It remains a rich personal narrative about growing up, about youthful rebellion, about the difficulty of holding onto ideals and of really knowing other people.
The writing is beautiful and complex, full of marvelous descriptive passages and occasional sentences in which the syntax seems to strain to carry the full weight of Gordimer's thought.
Early in the novel, Gordimer writes beautifully about the richness and vividness of imagination in childhood:
It is amazing on how little reality one can live when one is very young. It is only when one is beginning to approach maturity that achievement and possession have to be concrete in the hand to create each day; when you are young a whole livable present, elastic in its very tenuousness, impervious in its very independence of fact, spring up enveloping from a hint, a memory, an idea from a book. On this slender connection, like a tube of oxygen which feeds a man while he moves in an atmosphere not his own, it is possible to move and breathe as if your feet were on the ground.
As she grows older, Helen finds it difficult to imagine the lives of others, especially of her friend Mary, a black student she meets at the University. Taking the train home from Johannesburg one hot afternoon, she tries to imagine Mary's life, and realizes she is a stranger in her own land:
There was no way of knowing, no way of knowing. And sitting in the physical reality of the heat that tacked my mind down to consciousness of every part of my body, sweating or touching in discomfort against the encumbrance of cloth, I had an almost physical sensation of being a stranger in what I had always taken unthinkingly as the familiarity of home. I felt myself among strangers: the Africans, whose language in my ears had been like the barking of dogs or the cries of birds.
And this feeling seemed to transmute itself (perhaps by a trick of the heat, altering the very sensibility of my skin) to the feeling Mary must have, trying to oppose the abstract concepts of her books against the overwhelming physical life crowding against her. What a stranger it must make of her. A stranger to herself.
Estrangement is a theme that runs throughout the book. Imagination, so real and vivid in childhood, fails against the hard realities of adult life. In a sense, Gordimer seems to be saying, apartheid is an immense and tragic failure of the imagination: a failure to imagine ourselves into the skins and lives of others. But even imagination is not enough without the personal and political will to translate imagination into reality.