8 Essential Novels by South African Author Nadine Gordimer

Burgers Daughter Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer (November 20, 1923 – July 13, 2013) was a South African activist and Nobel Prize-winning author. Following is a compilation of 8 essential novels by Gordimer, a good place to start when getting acquainted with her work.

Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, three years before South Africa’s first free elections. Her work was especially relevant during the first free elections in 1994 – they remain relevant as the country moved into its next election date in March 2024.

She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, three years before South Africa’s first free elections.

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Nadine Gordimer

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About Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer was born November 20, 1923, in the small mining town of Springs, South Africa about thirty miles from Johannesburg. A privileged upbringing gave her a secure foundation. She began writing at nine years old and by 1937, she was a published teenage author in the Sunday Express. She enrolled for college studies at the University of Witwatersrand but left after a year to pursue writing.

She was ahead of her time by publishing her first novel The Lying Days (1953) at the height of governmental literature bans. Burger’s Daughter and July’s People were banned just months after their release, citing the time’s archaic censorship views.

Gordimer’s writing was soon internationally read, in part because she was a banned author in her home country. A South African Childhood was one of her many essays written for the New Yorker – a very rare accomplishment for authors of the time.

She involved herself in the struggle against apartheid laws, inspired by Bettie du Toit’s protest arrest. She co-founded the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) and was a notable member of the African National Congress (ANC). Gordimer also formed notable friendships, like that of Bram Fischer and George Bizos, attorneys to Nelson Mandela during his trial. The experiences formed the roots for her novel Burger’s Daughter.

Here are eight essential novels to know in Nadine Godimer’s catalog. 

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The Lying Days (1953) 

The Lying Days Nadine Gordimer

The Lying Days is Nadine Gordimer’s first published novel, preceded by the short story collection Face to Face (1949). It’s one of her most autobiographical works, drawing some of its storyline from her youth. Both Gordimer and the story’s protagonist spent their childhoods in small mining towns.

The story begins when  the protagonist, Helen Shaw, makes her way out of the small town to find a better life. The novel follows Helen as she comes of age and gains conciousness of the world around her. The Lying Days explores disenchantment and journeying through unfamiliar environments.

According to Oxford, it stands with A World of Strangers and Occasion for Loving as part of her “more traditional” novels.

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Occasion for Loving (1963)

Occasion for Loving Nadine Gordimer

Occasion for Loving takes on the subject of a different kind of government ban, which prohibited mixed-race relations and punished them with harsh sentences. Relationships across race were highly illegal – even writing about the topic could get authors in hot water with the government.

Considerable courage was needed just to write (or publish) a novel  at this time when Afrikaans authors like Ingrid Jonker were part of the equally rebellious Sixtiers movement. A 2017 academic study commends Occasion for Loving for its “discourse, power, and resistance” as an anti-apartheid novel.

The novel couples an affluent white woman with an African artist. Their love is illegal but runs strong through the storyline. The book uses love to expose the injustice of its times.

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The Conservationist (1974) 

Nadine Gordimer

The Conservationist follows the wealthy yet discontent businessman, Mehring, who decided to forgoe city life and buy a farm. Mehring must reflect on his unraveling life, all the while the dead body that was found on his property is looms over.

Mehring’s privilege and downfall acts as an allegory for apartheid. The Conservationist looks at the dance of life and death, set against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa.

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Burger’s Daughter (1979) 

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer


Burger’s Daughter was banned just three months after its release. The story’s told from the perspective of the daughter of anti-apartheid activist Lionel  Burger’s. Throughout the book, Rosa Burger, the story’s protagonist, is coming to terms with her country and heritage.

Gordimer’s work often reflected themes of activism – Burger’s Daughter is a strong example with reference to the ANC and Communist Party. Gordimer faced censorship with courage by publishing the censorship commission’s opinions in a collection of essays titled What Happened to Burger’s Daughter  where she voiced her thoughts on banned writing

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July’s People (1981)

July's People Nadine Gordimer

July’s People is about an alternate South African future, where Gordimer envisioned what South Africa would look like if a civil war had occurred.

The book takes a dystopian tone, playing on the country’s increased volatility at the time. Its cultural impact can’t be underestimated – especially at a time when art pieces like Black Jesus could have gotten their artists arrested, interrogated, or killed.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) refers to July’s People in its eponymous report about 2021 unrest in Southern Africa. This novel sent a clear and hard to ignore message to the government.

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The House Gun (1998) 

nadine gordimer The house gun

The House Gun begins with the phrase, “Something terrible happened.” Characters Harald and Claudia, both affluent whites, find themselves in the throes of a traditional whodunit spiced with politics. Everyone has heard of a house cat or house plant, the “house gun” emerged with the country’s paranoia in times of unrest or uncertainty.

This was one of Gordimer’s first novels written after the end of apartheid. Published after the 1994 elections, The House Gun explored the new laws and feelings in the country – including what fear and unfamiliarity could do to the average household.

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The Pickup (2001)

The pick up nadine gordimer

The Pickup brings readers back to romance, following Julie Summers and Abdu. The story begins in South Africa, where Abdu is an illegal immigrant to the country. Together, the couple moves to Abdu’s home country, where Julie becomes an illegal immigrant. The Pickup flips character perspectives on their heads, making each a fish out of water.

It’s on our list of 10 Unforgettable Books by South African Women Authors and one of several Gordimer novels to receive the Booker Prize.

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Get a Life (2005)

Get a Life nadine gordimer

Get a Life is a book about living, but also about dying. Environmental activist, Paul Bannerman, is diagnosed with thyroid cancer and moves back in with his parents. He’s caught in conflict due to the consequences  of his radiation treatments. Save one, or save many?

Get a Life addresses morality and humanity. Environmentalism is also a huge theme- one that may have evoked thoughts of her hometown where there is the unforgotten impact on the Earth from mining.

Contributed by Alex J. Coyne, a journalist, author. and proofreader. He has written for a variety of publications and websites, with a radar calibrated for gothic, gonzo and the weird. His features, posts, articles and interviews have been published in People MagazineATKV Taalgenoot, LitNet, The Citizen, Funds for Writers, and The South African, among other publications.

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