A complex read imbued with symbolism

2012-01-11 00:00

HAZEL Frankel is a Johannesburg-based painter, calligrapher and poet, whose previous novel Counting Sleeping Beauties was short-listed for the European Union Literary Award. She writes from a distinctly Jewish consciousness and in this book draws on her skill as poet and her expert know-ledge of calligraphy.

The novel focuses on a female-centred experience of love, family and the survival of violence. The protagonist Cally is using her skills as a calligrapher to create a lasting tribute to the poems of her grandmother Judith, an immigrant from Lithuania who escaped the holocaust herself but who looks back to her village, now unpeopled by a genocide that has utterly changed the nature of the local culture. This historical perspective is the lens through which contemporary South Africa is viewed, in which Cally’s own story plays out against a background of xenophobic violence and the effects of post-traumatic stress on her husband, a former conscriptee of the SADF.

In many ways this is a rich, evocative novel written in a spare and striking style. I loved the juxtaposition of poetry and prose which comment so aptly on each other, the one a reflection on the past and the other evoking the present. I also enjoyed the insights into Jewish culture and the intricacies of the art of calligraphy.

This is a novel that is complex and invites re-reading and reconsideration, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by two aspects of it. One is the simplistic presentation of Cally’s husband, Jake, and the other is the calligraphy lessons given to the character Aaron for whom Cally is illuminating a ketubah (significantly, a document containing marriage vows) which come across with unnecessary pedantry. In a book so imbued with symbolism and so complexly layered with rich understandings of family and culture they seem out of place.

The novel comes with a glossary of Yiddish terminology which is helpful but also irritating in that the referencing to and fro disturbs the flow, although it does invite the reader to stop and think and enter imaginatively into the worlds unfolding.

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