PREMISED IN THE kind of sing-song voice that you might attribute to the retelling of a bible story, The Season of Glass is a fictional vessel for messianic prophecy, focusing on the birth of twins. But it’s not that simple.
As you plunge into this complicated tale of messiah-based hope, cultural criss-crossings and mystical evolution, you fall into a rich morass of possibility, hooked as it is into Jewish tradition and redefinitions. Glass is Rahla Xenopoulos’s third novel. It’s also a massively ambitious project which filters a shadow of a similar tale repeated in a great diversity of contexts, reaching from ancient Ethiopia to India, 1970s Johannesburg to 1730s Spain with a touch of the technological future tossed into the mix.
And it is this complexity that lies at the nub of the book’s thinking, but also to an extent, is the element that makes it a bruising experience. While Xenopoulos is a deeply creative writer with a strong ear for dialogue and idiosyncrasy, she’s not given to helping you along the way, very much, by way of context or back story. Considerable use in each of the six parts of this story is made of first person narrative, which often feels anachronistic, leaving you occasionally lost in a miasma of ‘me’. Added to that is a lack of speaker clarity, and while the material rings with a resonance that seems to reach back into fabled antiquity, it is disconcerting not to always know who is saying what to whom.
Indeed, narrative interstices of The Season of Glass are avenues and veins rich with storytelling adventures that draw on a multitude of Jewish cultural spice, from the kabbalism underpinning the Queen of Sheba to the boiling pot of anger in Soweto, 1976, and the mother who lights Shabbat candles but does not believe in God. There are Jewish rabbi pirates and a cardinal who will not die, as there is humour and sadness, tragedy and fear and all the elements of well-heeled stories told and retold. And while much of it is credibly based on fact, there’s something that prevents this book from soaring in the literary way that it should. Has this to do with flow? With grammar? With consistency? With chronology? With the absence of a glossary and the preponderance of cultural terms? Or is it more clearly the lack of the author’s words to introduce the bouquet of tales within a tale?
Either way, you immerse yourself in this beautiful prose with gobsmackingly gorgeous descriptions and consolidations of themes, that sees prophecies around twins given voice and thwarted, but the glue between these moments of magnificence feels turgid. There are times when the out of sync nature of the work’s chronology is unsatisfying and other times, such as the conclusive Grid narrative that aims to sum up everything, where the tricks Xenopoulos plays with language while reaching into a science fiction realm, jar because of their inconsistencies.
This final section might make you think of John Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, published in 1980, both with sleight-of-hand grammar tricks, but because Xenopoulos’s language devices are not consistent, something is lost, making the book read a little rough shod over your expectations. A lot rests, narratively speaking, upon this last section and it feels like a foray into the ethos of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1981) or Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (1985), with a smidgeon of George Orwell’s 1949 classic 1984 on the side, but with compromises.
Ultimately, there is a powerful voice running through it all that offers a cynical aside on the possibility of a messianic saviour, a girl child. In each section of the book, this character strives to be born, when born, she strives to do good, to teach, to show, to grow into adulthood, but it is the ethos and the substance of each timeframe, ancient and modern and futuristic that complicates the process. It’s a rollicking read if you’re able to hold onto the stuff of fable and forget proofreading idiosyncrasies.
- The Season of Glass by Rahla Xenopoulos is published by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa, Cape Town (2018).