Jewish Jo’burg through a dirty keyhole

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EVERY ONCE IN a while a novel might cross your path that snatches at every spare minute you have and occupies your every waking hour – until you’ve found out whodunit, that is, or how the narrative comes to closure. When you read Marilyn Cohen De Villiers’s Deceive and Defend, the third novel in her trilogy, mooted the Silverman saga, about conflict and sensationalism in an opulent Jewish Johannesburg family, be aware that all your other deadlines or commitments may fall into abeyance.

A story that begs comparison with the dexterity with which Agatha Christie plies her characters and inserts hairpin bends in how things transpire, this work (and the two that precede it) have something of the urgency and energy in the Lynda la Plante stories that were magicked into television mini-series in the 1990s under the Trial and Retribution titles, featuring David Hayman.

Even if you haven’t read Cohen De Villiers’s two other books, A Beautiful Family (2014) and When Time Fails (2015), you will be sucked into the complex relationship of the members of the Silverman family, addressing the threads cast out by the first two books. It’s a saga that touches on everything from sexual abuse to incest, child molestation to murder and while the authorial voices paints Jewish Johannesburg with devastating hues, it’s clearly fiction.

But it’s fiction that gives the notion of self-publishing a very important compliment: this writing, which is crisp and well defined, informed, racy and alive with contextual relevance, is stronger than a lot of contemporary published fiction. Similar to Peter Harris’s brilliant debut novel, Bare Ground, published earlier this year, the book is written with a firm sense of narrative, a playful and deeply intelligent understanding of language and a clarity that embraces all levels of contemporary South Africa, in a way that makes this trilogy arguably something of a great Jewish South African novel, that brings together many strands.

If you know Jewish Johannesburg, you may respond to this story more profoundly and with recognition. But, if you don’t, this book is not moored in a sense of insularity or parochialism – rather, against the broad narrative of the collapse of the journalism industry with the character Tracy Jacobs in the complicated quandary of wanting a story, a reputation and love but having a news editor with clear biases to contend with, the story is bigger than just the smarmy bits.

With research-based eyes on the field and current status of social work and that of prison in South Africa, Deceive and Defend is tightly woven, easily the strongest of three already strong texts, it’s an astonishing read which will keep you guessing incorrectly until the very last pages.

Having said all of that, the type setting of the book is not always satisfying on the eye – while the text is tightly packed, the attention to ‘widows and orphans’ in terms of hanging text is taken into consideration leaving the layout of the text upsetting to the eye. But as the narrative begins to flow, you forgive everything, as you hope your domestic responsibilities will forgive you for your absence, while you’re reading it.

Deceive and Defend by Marilyn Cohen de Villiers is published by Mapolaje Publishers (2018).

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Robyn Sassen

A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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