On the surface of this astounding fourth novel by renowned Cape Town author, Rosemund J Handler, yet another product of the University of Cape Town’s Creative Writing School, the reader asks the question; “Who is us, and who is them?”
If memory serves me correctly, Ms Handler completed her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town some years ago. In the meantime, she has written and published three very good novels, all published by Penguin Books.
In MADLANDS, the difficult theme of depression is explored, and tells the story of a family’s struggle with at least one member’s battle with the misunderstood condition of bipolar disorder. KATY’S KID is a tragic tale of loss between an unconventional mother and her daughter, and yet still, new possibilities of redemption from loss are possible.
TSAMMA SEASON was an ambitious foray into the rural world of the Southern African region’s original inhabitants and its descendants. This cultural and anthropological journey was richly rewarded with honours and praise, shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize: Africa region.
US AND THEM, published in 2012, came to the reader, quite by chance, when he became preoccupied with an ambitious project of reading, researching and writing about the Holocaust and the Nazi pogroms of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich during the nineteen-thirties and the Second World War.
Handler’s narrative is multi-layered and focusses on a Jewish family, spanning three generations, residing in Vredehoek, just up the road from where the reader currently lives. The origins of this family, which transforms uncomfortably from orthodoxy to agnosticism and secularity, lies in the matriarch and patriarch’s flight from Eastern Europe during the Second World War, and settlement within a burgeoning class-focussed Jewish community at the foot of the majestic Table Mountain, recognised today as a natural wonder of this world.
Mother and father are cruelly, yet understandably nick-named Pharisees by their troublesome and rebellious, daughter who, shunning Yiddish orthodoxy and all its hypocrisies, re-names herself Jen. To the ageing parent’s great disappointment, she meets and copulates with a pleasant, young professional, Gordon, who has also abandoned his own orthodox religion, rooted in Irish Catholicism.
An early pregnancy forces Jen and Gordon into an unwanted and long and unhappy marriage. They give birth to two twin daughters, Aliza and Paola, who adopt their mother’s rebelliousness while growing up. They and their parents are tragically afflicted by the mother’s mysterious miscarriage of a third sibling.
The remaining twins are closely attached by the rare condition of folie a deux, the folly of two. The narrative addresses this condition through the explanation of a psychologist during the story’s climax. “ It’s a rare condition in which an healthy person shares the delusions – or, in your case, goes along with them – of a person with a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia; which I suspect, is likely what your sister is suffering from.”
It is Aliza who has this folly of two, while her sister whom she addresses cryptically as P throughout the narrative, suffers from the more serious psychological disorder which she, in turn, has inherited from her mother. One suspects that the psychotic behaviour inheres from their European ancestors who are traumatised by the Nazi atrocities and adjustments to the unequal and divided societies of apartheid South Africa.
Personally, I am glad that Handler revisits the theme of depression and its consequential psychological effects that she handled authoritatively in her earlier novels, MADLANDS and KATY’S KID. In US AND THEM, the extremities of such psychotic behavioural patterns are broached with similar and dangerous acts of madness and unconventional behaviour.
The matriarch and her husband, Jen’s husband, Gordon, and to a degree, Paola, could be tentatively described as antagonists to the story’s protagonist, Aliza, who dominates the narrative in the voice of the first person. It would appear that she has adapted best to her role in a dysfunctional family. in today’s twenty-first century material society, having long discarded the misguided romanticism of a nuclear family and the false sense of security of being classified ‘white’ by a racist hegemony with disturbing similarities to the supremacist ideologies of the Nazis.
Elsewhere, it has been mentioned that the Jews revolted against Nazism. They did not. While a relatively small group of Jews did join a number of resistance movements throughout Europe, adopting the bravery, patriotism and religious fervour of their ancestors atop Masada against the Romans, the majority of Jews meekly and controversially accepted their fate, fleeing Europe, as Jen’s parents did, or entered the gas chambers to be efficiently executed by their persecutors.
The narrative is neatly arranged into a series of parts in which each member of this Jewish family relates to the reader their lived experiences. As mentioned earlier, it is Aliza who dominates the narrative in the first person, and I venture to suggest that she operates as a metaphor of survival from atrocities such as the Holocaust in an era of disbelief and denial that such atrocities ever took place.
The narrative is skilfully managed, by discarding the conventional use of exclamation marks which are indicative of character dialogue. Such dialogue is masterfully deployed within the narrative which is patterned with short, swift paragraphs, and some longer paragraphs, particularly when a change in setting, or theme occurs.
The publisher’s introductions to the author and her novels consistently emphasise her love for nature and her regular hiking excursions along the mountains of Cape Town. I enjoyed Handler’s characterisation of Aliza as an avid hiker throughout her teenage years with her African friend who is, as a supporting character, but no less important, contrasted tragically with the adult Aliza, who travels as a successful expatriate from London to Cape Town to be with her controversial mother in her last days of life, having been afflicted by incurable cancer.
It is rare that I recommend a novel so highly, which for me was a literary page-turner. Having canvassed other authors within what we could call a Cape diaspora, Rosamund J Handler stands head and shoulders above her peers as a literary agent.
* Look out for my essays and forthcoming reviews on the Holocaust, particularly within SOPHIE’S CHOICE, written by William Styron and directed in film by Alan J Pakula. You can also look forward to a return to Roberto Begnigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.