Readable and ultimately satisfying

2012-11-28 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Us and Them

Rosemund J. Handler

Penguin

 

US and Them is about a dysfunctional family, whose individual members are disturbed and damaged by the toxic presence of wife and mother, Jen Sullivan, at its centre. A thoroughly unlikeable woman, she is the child of Jewish immigrants, who fled Eastern Europe prior to World War 2 and settled in Cape Town. Growing up: she refuses to be called by her Jewish first names and adopts the simple “Jen”; she is embarrassed by Yiddish, despite its colourful and expressive nature; she is contemptuous of her parents’ stereotypical Jewish looks; and, rejecting shul and a bat mitzvah, she pronounces herself a religious sceptic. Her relationship with her parents is further strained when she falls pregnant and marries a lapsed Catholic.

What Jen is unable to discard is an entrenched superstition — belief in a malign force, the dybbuk or demon, that has bedevilled her people and her immediate antecedents, and appears to be victimising her. She attributes to this malign force with the death of her aunt Zena, the still-birth of the third of her triplets, and the drowning of her three-year-old son.

It seems that because of the lurking omnipresence of the dybbuk, Jen is reluctant to bestow love, fearing that loving someone too much attracts the malign fate.

Nevertheless, she is obnoxious. An obsessive materialist and shopper, goalless, self-absorbed and confrontational, she drives her accountant husband into silence, long office-hours and someone else’s embraces. She also drives one of her daughters to find solace in hiking and climbing in the mountains around Cape Town, and she drives the other daughter into a deeply disturbed and protracted psychological state.

The demon-preoccupation is not sufficient to account for, or excuse, the alienating and destructive behaviour of the woman. It is impossible to have any real understanding of — let alone compassion for — her. Jen Sullivan should be a woman in torment. All she appears to be is a tormentor. And this is not enough.

The narrative holds the reader’s interest by providing differing perspectives and a shifting chronology. However, there are times when the writing becomes a little self-indulgent, and the novel would have benefited from some judicious cutting and tightening.

Us and Them is perfectly readable — but it is not an entirely satisfying reading experience.

 

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