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Rosemund Handler

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Review of Us and Them from the Cape Argus “Life” Section, October 15 2012

Us and Them by Rosemund Handler (Penguin)

by Beverley Roos-Muller

No family is without secrets. If you suppose yours is the exception, then you are probably outside the loop. Families are the ultimate tribe on a tiny scale, with loyalties as fierce observed as omerta. Those who hold a halo over the glowing ideal of ‘family values’ ignore the painful question: what famlies, and which values? The home should ideally provide a safe and nurturing haven but too often it is a cauldron of catastrophe, hidden from the outside world;. Philip Larkin wasn’t wrong.

Yet the ‘war in the nursery’ is also an essential training ground for the survival of the fittest. This is perhaps a longish way round of saying that Rosemund Handler’s latest book, Us and Them, has superbly captured the internal terrorism of a family unit dealing with issues for which it is both underequipped and bereft of knowledge. It is Handler’s fourth novel and is, I think, her best yet. There is a confidence in her narrative which is unflinching in its directness – startlingly so.

On the surface, the domestic unit of Capetonians Gordon and Jen and their twin daughters suggests a ‘white picket fence’ ideal, but there are buried issues that belay that burnished exterior. “Jen” is Chaya, daughter of Holocaust survivors, bored with the burden of carrying their future hopes, sick of the Sea Point shtelt, longing to fit in like the other blonde girls of her ken. Tall, pleasant Gordon who comes from that seemingly effortless world, offers the perfect passport.

Jen, though, has married out of her faith (despite Gordon’s advocacy of Shabbat rituals, and traditions), and, like so many before her, she struggles with the luggage common to children of survivors – that in order to give meaning to their suffering, she should live well and happily within her own heritage. So, having turned away from this, when the twin blessing (literally) of daughters arrives, she cannot avoid feeling the lurking presence of the ‘evil eye’, the long, beckoning reach of the dybbuk, the uncanny feeling that she will pay dearly for her pleasure and betrayal.

Jen’s undoing is that she had, unknowingly until the birth, carried triplets, one of which was unviable. Despite Gordon’s pleading with her to rejoice in the two sweet girls they have, she finds little support in understanding her loss, the ‘missing child syndrome’ of those who have lost a gestating child. A slow unravelling process begins for Jen, a decline into valium and emotional disarray that profoundly affects them all. Gentle Gordon runs interference for the girls; but what Jen needs is a husband who participates rather than placates. The twins will respond in different ways. Aliza confronts her mother, then flees when she is old enough, returning with considerably reservations to see her dying mother. Paolo displays unmistakable signs of mental illness ignored by a family in denial. It is a ‘folly of two’– a shared, pschotic disorder of the twins, screening out what is all too evident. Family damage has become Jen’s haunting, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Handler has written before about mental illness, the agony of disfuntional families and the possibilities of overcoming the worst of circumstances. Though Us and Them deals with difficult issues, it is not all gloomy. She is brisk, at times funny, and acutely observant. You cannot write about the small fallibilities of a narrow world-view without close and sympathetic insight; and she makes sure that the Lilliput nature of this small, terrible drama is recorded in the face of a much larger world, filled with potential.

We become what is possible, with or without the help of our families and supporters; us, as well as them.

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