Gordimer’s heroine, Helen Shaw, takes the reader on an unhurried journey from her idyllic but stale childhood in an all-white suburb near a South African goldmine to her tumultuous adult experiences of love and growing political awareness in Apartheid-era Johannesburg.
The First Step Toward Independence
On holiday away from her family, 17-year-old Helen meets Ludi and has her first affair. Ludi is the first person to challenge the way she was brought up and ask her to re-examine how she is expected to live her life. His unconventional thinking startles her, and she soon realizes she has a choice to make regarding her future. Their affair pushes her to investigate going to university and getting some distance from her family.
Early Student Life
Helen begins to commute from her home in the mining town to Johannesburg as a student, and soon becomes friends with a young African woman and a Jewish student. Her willingness to bend the strict social constraints imposed by South Africa’s color laws signal Helen’s growing understanding of the dishonesty inherent in such a severe separation of cultures. She begins to cast a critical eye on the social and political structures she had, until then, taken for granted.
Slowly, carefully, Helen learns to negotiate a complex network of friendships in her new life. These unusual experiences challenge both her intellect and her emotions, and she must learn to choose between the ingrained customs she absorbed as a young child and the more accepting, more honest interactions of her adult self.
A Passionate Affair
Eventually, it becomes impossible for Helen to remain at home. She has transformed into someone no longer able to fit in with the rest of the complacent and ordered mining community. She feels the lure of an independent life and moves to a small, shared apartment in Johannesburg. Soon, she falls in love with Paul, an energetic and passionate political activist. Helen’s life is poised to take a dramatic turn.
Gordimer weaves together the giddiness of an individual’s first, mature love affair with the seriousness of developing political consciousness. Not only is Paul a catalyst for Helen’s awakening sexual identity, but also of her sense of moral responsibility. Ultimately, however, Helen evolves to the point where she can no longer emulate Paul’s social commitment. She must discover her path and her place in South Africa’s future.
The Lying Days are only the first of Nadine Gordimer’s significant contributions to the literature of political awareness. But as her first, it is an excellent example of her commitment to political principle as well as a breathtaking display of her skill as a writer.