The scourge of sexual violence behind closed doors in affluent, educated and God-fearing society might be considered a topic so well covered in contemporary times that it has become hackneyed. But Marilyn Cohen de Villiers has debuted with a most extraordinarily powerful novel that will not let you continue living your life until you’ve learned the whole truth of the death of Brenda Silverman.
Something of a crime thriller, something of a docu-drama, the immensely well written publication takes you through the rich contradictory complexity of South Africa in the 1980s to the current day Jewish community in Johannesburg. This new writer doesn’t skip a beat in confronting demons and hypocrisies and perspectives held close by the community. She is unflinching in her intelligent and articulate description of how a closed community instinctively wants silence to pervade around particular types of scandal.
Brenda Silverman, an illustrious wife and mother in religious Jewish Johannesburg is found dead in her bed. She is 44 years old and the wife of a man feted as an award winning businessman and one of the community’s philanthropical heroes. An autopsy has been arranged. Journalist Tracy Jacobs, who went to school with the dead woman’s children, gets commissioned to cover the story for her newspaper, the Daily Express. It’s the starting point of a heart-wrenching guttural yarn which never teeters over into grandstanding or mawkishness, but will leave you, particularly if you know the community in question, unsettled.
Structurally, there are frissons in this work which relate it to several seasons of the well-written British murder series Trial and Retribution, aired in 2007, which tears strips off affluent society, revealing complex realities that reach far beyond what appears to be the sensible facts, touching on everything from religious hypocrisy to access to drugs.
The book never veers from being a novel and yet it fingers a particular community with such an eerie intimacy it makes you shiver, and this, amongst its other great assets is what lends A Beautiful Family its strength. Not only is this book an immense critical success for this first time novelist, but it offers a very well researched yet deeply distressing bird’s eye view into the scourge of abuse: it’s an important book for any community that weathers the reality of abuse within its belly.
Structured from within the perspectives of each of the central characters in the story, the yarn is woven with both delicacy and wisdom. We get to see how a hebephile justifies the most appalling behaviour from within his own skewed values. Do we sympathise with him? Perhaps, up to a point. If you consider how the makers of Oz the HBO prison series from the late 1990s wrote the material around really obnoxious criminals in such a way that led you to realise how society had let them down. In A Beautiful Family, you will appreciate how something similar happens, which ultimately lends the work balance. But given the structure of the material, everyone’s viewpoint is given fair voice. The result is cacophonous, ultimately satisfying as a read, but important in terms of the shadow it casts.
While the book weighs in at over 500 pages, it’s not a hefty read. Cohen De Villiers’s writing is tight and fast and never judgemental: her fury and bewilderment are made evident through the fictional characters she has created in a very real world.
This might be considered an ideal beach book or plane book, given the smooth flow of language, but be warned, it will haunt you: the issues dealt with here are deeply troubling. They represent an indictment on how a closed community hides its filthy secrets and while the narrative is predictable, there are hairpin bends in the plot which are horrifying yet feasible. Also be warned: as you embark upon this read, anything else you might be doing will slip into irrelevance, until you have read it all.
This is a novel which should be on the recommended reading list of any community leadership. And its success as a project makes you only really want to know when Cohen De Villiers’s second novel will be out.
A Beautiful Family by Marilyn Cohen de Villiers (Reach Publishers, Wandsbeck 2014)