For first person narrative to sing with a poetry that pushes it away from petty personal accounts, separated by the phrase ‘and then’, you need to be a strong, experienced writer with an intimate understanding of the discipline and an ability to read your own work with scathing outsiderness. This self-published debut publication trips and falls into all the flaws in the process with a level of naivete that would be almost charming, but for its anger.
In Stranger in the Guest House: From Survivor to Thriver, Charlene Scott Levin tells the consistently furious story of her life. She was adopted by people who were flawed in their emotional ability to raise her. She married a man who maltreated her. She suffered from a great lack of self-love. Her relationship with her brother was thwarted. As was that with her daughter, Nola. Essentially her writing of this book was about therapy more than achieving literature.
Replete with errors – in grammar and spelling as well as context – and peppered with cliché, it’s a bumpy read, clearly missing the presence of a strong editorial hand or even advice from a seasoned writer. Lacking any voice other than her own, this material, ostensibly based in fact, but with names changed, takes a child’s vision into areas so dramatically and obviously out of her ken, like her parents’ bed, it challenges the way in which she has constructed her own character in the tale, often doing things like putting words into people’s mouths and casting assumptions around decisions they take.
It offers comments about Judaism which are questionable – a batmitzvah (or the coming of age of a young girl in Jewish tradition) is not a ritually essential affair, for instance – and mumbles confusedly around chronology. It is dotted with Jewish phraseology, not all of which is self-explanatory and a lot of which is inward looking. Further to that, it is a tale peppered with bitter tears at incidents and anecdotes which read as petty rather than as monumentally sinister as Scott Levin intends. He said, she said arguments between her and her brother as adults, are particular cases in point that do not serve the publication or its writer’s dignity.
At several points in the text, you feel a great sense of pity for Pessa, mother of Sharlene, who is lambasted from top to bottom unrelentingly. Splinters of the kinds of challenges she might have been going through herself appear – when nine miscarriages are mentioned, for instance – and you also feel a curiosity as to how this narrative would have played out were the different protagonists in Sharlene’s story given the chance to air their side of things.
Clearly writing a book of this nature was an important and empowering gesture for Scott Levin. Whether it will have a committed readership responding to her prose, outside of her immediate circle, is a moot point. And it’s a pity: her content has enormous potential. Without the backing of proper research or more carefully honed writing, it becomes very light weight and flagrantly emotional. The book is also too detailed, which makes for a tale so replete with incidents that the broader narrative is bamboozled.
Having said that, the therapeutic exercise of writing this book is symptomatic of the kind of abuse behind closed doors that predominates in a parochial community, like that of Jewish Johannesburg. Her writing it and publishing it is indicative of the lackadaisical attitude of the lay and religious authorities to engage with this kind of domestic malevolence, and emotional incompetence: behaviour which is often smoothed over by money.
- Stranger in the Guest House: from Survivor to Thriver by Sharlene Scott Levin (2014: Point Rider Publishing, USA and South Africa).