Untouchable. Paul Bannerman considers himself a modern day leper. Diagnosed with papillary carcinoma of the thyroid at the age of 35, the white ecologist in South Africa undergoes surgery to remove the malignant thyroid gland. Four week later, he is treated with radioactive iodine to obliterate any residual cancerous cells. Paul will remain radioactive for 16 days and poses a risk to anyone in contact with him. He must be quarantined. His parents, Adrian and Lyndsay, offer to care for him in their home so that Paul will not expose his wife, Berenice (Benni), and 3-year-old son, Nickie to potentially harmful radioactivity. While at his parent’s house, Paul is isolated. Nothing of Paul’s is allowed to mingle with that of others. He spends considerable time in the garden reflecting on his life.

As Paul recovers, his parent’s marriage unravels. His mother has had a previous affair. Now his father has a fling of his own (with the tour guide) during a trip to Mexico. His dad never returns home and dies of heart failure in Norway. Paul’s mother adopts an HIV-positive 3-year-old black girl.

Benni wants to have another child, but Paul is worried. Are his radioactive sperm still capable of fertilization, and if so, will the child be somehow deformed or mutilated? Eventually conception occurs, and the baby is healthy. Paul’s most recent scan shows no signs of recurrent cancer. On the professional front, Paul gets additional good news. The environmental and conservation organization he works for has been successful in opposing and temporarily halting a mining project in the sand dunes and the development of a pebble-bed nuclear reactor. Lately, most things associated with Paul are starting to glow.        


The novel does a solid job in describing the effects of illness on self and family. Disease prompts people to re-examine their lives. It sometimes segregates individuals from the healthy community and ordinary life. Referring to his illness and treatment with radioactivity, the protagonist “cannot trust his body. It remains the stranger that was made of it” [p 119]. 

Metamorphosis is a major theme of the book. Nearly everything undergoes some type of transformation – the body, the mind, marriage, fidelity, career, and the environment – and not always for the better. Paul’s health crisis parallels threats to family and the planet. The novel postulates the existence of many different forms of loneliness. Recuperation, like confinement, can be quite difficult despite the concern and support of others. “Disaster is private, in its way, as love is” [p 42]. Get a Life can be read and taught in conjunction with other works of literature depicting medical quarantine.  


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count