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).

Oy Vey! This book’s packaging bruises its content

OyVey0001From the outset this book shrieks its presence into your awareness. Oy vey my child is gay (and an addict) are the words emblazoned in shocking pink across the face of a beautiful toddler. From the first time you see this book, you might find it sensationalist and disrespectful. It’s a plot spoiler. It even feels a tad homophobic. But you need to steel yourself to look beyond that cover and that title.

This is a first person narrative – a debut self-published work – that unflinchingly tackles head on the challenge faced by a woman when her daughter does not grow up into the stereotype she expects of her. When her daughter faces and represents more complex and bewildering challenges than she feels she, as her mother, has the tools to cope with. It’s a gutsy, powerful and eminently readable publication in which Anne Lapedus Brest has clearly been at pains to get right in the telling.

And the story is told with a distinctive personal style and a satisfying structure, chronicling the life of Lapedus Brest’s daughter Angela, who as the title points out, suffers the indignity of having to come out as gay in a homophobic community, and who further, becomes addicted to hard drugs.

In its telling, Lapedus Brest spills it all: no avenue of the horrors associated with not understanding who her daughter is remains unexplored. Veering on the side of parochial, Lapedus Brest’s text is  heavily peppered with South Africanisms and Jewishisms which might be off putting to a reader not from either of these communities, but it resonates with an evocative sense of authenticity.

Towards the end of the narrative, the love articulated becomes so overwritten, it compromises the rest of the book. It is the opening and closing of the package of this book, then, that hurt it the most.

There’s a chapter in which Lapedus Brest writes about her own relationships in an attempt to explain the notion of an addictive personality. There’s another in which she quotes directly from Angela’s personal diaries and a third in which she coerces Angela’s father Hymie to write a ‘Dear Angela’ tribute. These elements make you, the reader, cringe: you feel you shouldn’t be made privy to them. They’re private family moments which detract from the values secreted within this book.

Catastrophe is a brave and important gesture as a book, particularly from within the reaches of a community in which the common approach to such challenges has been to hide them, deny them and pretend them away, forcing children to perpetuate the same behaviour. It’s a celebration of the life of a family who managed to roll with the punches and still remain roughly intact, and it must have been an enormously cathartic exercise for the author herself. It’s just a pity that too much “emotion on the stage” prevents it from seriously being literature as well as advocacy in its nature.

Catastrophe: Oy Vey my child is gay and an addict by Anne Lapedus Brest (MF Books, an imprint of Jacana Media, Johannesburg 2014)

A Beautiful Family: an unstoppable book to grab you by your community ties

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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)

Stranger: An angry, therapeutic exercise

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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).