In Tales of the Metric System, Coovadia explores a turbulent South Africa from 1970 into the present. He takes his home country’s transition from imperial to metric measurements as his catalyst, holding South Africa up and examining it from the diverse perspectives of his many characters. An elite white housewife married to a radical intellectual; a rock guitarist; the same guitarist’s granddaughter thirty years later; a teenaged boy at the mercy of mob justice—each story takes place over one of ten days across the decades, and each protagonist has his own stakes, her own moment in time, but each is equally caught in the eddies of change. Tales of the Metric System is clear eyed, harrowing, and daring.
Coorvadia's novel gives readers an on-the-ground view of how South Africa functioned under apartheid. Over 10 chapters and 40 years from 1970 through the end of apartheid, the election of Nelson Mandela, and the 2010 World Cup multiple narrators provide varying perspectives. Each chapter showcases a short period of time, from a few hours to a day, in a character's life. A wealthy white woman needs the help of her neighbor's black servant to get her car started. Victor Moloi awakens to find his identification papers missing, which was cause for arrest in 1973. Sanjay Naidoo stays with his rich uncle at a Johannesburg resort, where they are one of the few non-white families. The collected stories structure recalls David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, or Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad. As a character says early on, "We get most of our energy from complications." These complications rapidly pile up, resulting in a layered, multifaceted narrative. Overarching threads include the AIDS crisis and government corruption. Throughout, readers are reminded that "everything would count and nothing would be measured." The small moments captured by Coovadia are snapshots of South Africa's cultural change.