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).
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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)