Reading Nadine Gordimer’s first novel The Lying Days (1953) is a bit like being introduced to someone you’ve been wanting to meet for a long time. There’s a huge amount of expectation involved and not just a little preconceived notion. I was uneasy to start that first page, nervous she wouldn’t live up to all I’ve decided she already is.
Thankfully, I wasn’t at all disappointed. All of her subsequent accomplishments can be easily spotted in the pages of this first sampling of her art. As much as the term can annoy me with its ability to reduce a larger work into some easily pocketable catch-phrase, The Lying Days is a coming-of-age novel. Our narrator Helen will grow up in these pages, discover herself, discover the world and come to contemplate her own substance.
The novel begins with a vivid evocation of both transgression and trespass. Young Helen, maybe 7 or 8, quarrels with her mother and as a result ventures out of her safe white community into the roiling and colorful atmosphere of a nearby township. This first voyage into a place she should not be is a visceral experience for our narrator, both frightening and exciting, that serves as a template for the rest of the novel – the sensual and intellectual delight of contravention.
Gordimer is interested in the space where the political and the emotional interact. This is where her characters really come to life. This first novel makes that very clear. However, it doesn’t merge the two as seamlessly as most of her later work. But what The Lying Days does reveal, quite splendidly, is Gordimer’s uncanny perception into those unique moments of human interaction.
I could nearly pick a page at random and find something similar but this particular passage struck me – these lines come from when Helen has left her family and set up a new life in Johannesburg:
So I, who had inherited no God, made my mystery and my reassurance out of human love; as if the worship of love in some aspect is something without which the human condition is intolerable and terrifying, and humans will fashion it for their protection out of whatever is in their lives as birds will use string and bits of wool to make a nest in the city where there are no reeds.
Where the first sections of the book remain subtly political, the second half is intensely so. Helen becomes involved with a man who is passionately fighting against the newly elected National Party and their policy of apartheid. These sections do lose some of “Helen’s story” in a larger sense but they are still quite fascinating. And the events she witnesses shape her as much as her love affair and her friendships. By the end of the book, Helen has become a complicated character who comes into her own both powerfully and honestly.