Jewish Jo’burg through a dirty keyhole

defencedeceive

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).

When Time Fails: a small novel with an enormous guttural reach

TimeFailsSearing the South African political and Jewish landscape with a glance that takes in everything from the bizarre realities of farming culture and land reclamation to the philosophy of the kibbutz and where it is flawed, Marilyn Cohen De Villiers’s second blockbuster novel is a real page turner.

When Time Fails tells the complex story of an Afrikaans-speaking white South African woman called Annamari van Zyl. A mote in the eye of Alan Silverman, the central most disturbing character of Cohen De Villiers’s previous book A Beautiful Family, Annamari’s tale leaps off in a different direction and while you don’t have to have read the first book, it helps yet in a sense bruises the reading of the second.

The dovetailing of violent narrative between Cohen De Villiers’s two books fleshes out characters that were only sketched in roughly in the first book and leaves its reflections more three dimensional, but your knowledge of how things unfold in a Beautiful Family, does, in many ways, rob the story of some of its surprise elements. Then again, the Alan Silverman link is a bloody thread that runs through the book and keeps you turning pages until the ultimate climax of the work, and there are fresh hairpin bends that will keep you rivetted.

A consummately skilled writer, Cohen De Villiers has woven a text that reflects on the contradiction, quirkiness, challenges and horror of a so-called ordinary white South African family on the cusp of apartheid. Mixed with a frisson of violence, a delicate handling of sex and a deeply empathetic reflection on farming culture in the country and how it was beleaguered and encroached upon in different ways, the novel is very compelling, and from the first moment where an envelope is received from the department of land affairs, to the last, which sees the promise of happiness in an unexpected way, you will be intrigued and moved.

Structured with a satisfying formula, When Time Fails begins in 2014 and then slides back through the trajectory of time to the early 1980s, framing the story in history and context. Sprinkled with the harsh values of racist bias, considering not only the black and coloured communities, but the Jews as well, When Time Fails is well researched and developed with a mature eye that doesn’t flinch at describing some horrendous scenes and levels of violence.

Cast as it is against the unyielding landscape of a farm in South Africa’s Free State province, the writing embraces everything, from the weather to the light, to the lie central to Annamari’s identity, which acts as the underbelly to the work. You do know roughly how the work will unfold, given the parameters of possibility it presents, but there are some sheer surprises that have the power to make this read an all night long one.

Again, as she did in her debut publication last year, Cohen De Villiers has yielded a tour de force in this book which fits very smoothly into the pastoral novel genre specific to this country. But more than just a plaas roman in the conventional sense, the novel throws up the inherent contradictions of Jewish South Africans, and also of people marred by sexual behaviour reflecting psychiatric illness. Blended with an understanding of incest and its taboos and the strong arm of affirmative action in fields as diverse as cricket and law, in bold yet very intelligent sweeps, Cohen De Villiers’s pen embraces everything from Hansie Cronje’s sorry saga, to Thabo Mbeki’s HIV and Aids remedies.

Arguably with an appeal that will embrace a wider fan-base than A Beautiful Family, When Time Fails is written with a candid pen, and a strong sense of plot. It is eminently readable and perplexing in the social and community-focused dilemmas it suggests. In short: read this book. Cohen De Villiers promises a third in her prologue, and already, it’s keenly anticipated.

  • When Time Fails is written by Marilyn Cohen De Villiers and published by Mapolaje Publishers (2015).