Frankel’s novel had the potential to be a readable work of art if she chose a language and stuck to it. What was supposed to be the book’s strength, using multiple characters in their comfort zones is self-defeating in a country where plurality often means too much.
The author’s clever use of Yiddish to build her Jewish characters is a strong point, same as Zimbabwean authors would write about sadza and an Afrikaner about doek. It starts to annoy when the author attempts to make this book an International Language Board. Yiddish is good when used in limited quantities to highlight the influences of Jewish culture in countries such as South Afrika. It’s refreshing to read about Shabbos and Barmitzvah but gets to your nerves when you get whole sentences in Yiddish. The author’s flow is also dampened by the absence of clearly-defined chapters in the book.
It might have been a problem of design and layout but chapter definitions always remind the reader to pause and reflect. Her flirtation with Sepedi also exposes flaws since a character in a book should speak their mother tongue of good quality. Such can not be said about her Setswana while her Afrikaans has a nice ring to it – it still comes across as pidgin.
Frankel has a way of building and then bringing down without warning. It makes following her throughout the book difficult. While one relishes surfacing Gertrude from Pietersburg at irregular intervals it is her first person approach to the narrative that weakens this book. It would have been perfect if it was narrated on second person throughout.
The book attempts to enhance social cohesion and building the nation. However I fail to understand why it must always be done at the expense of the black domestic worker? Black women are portrayed as nothing but domestic workers and prostitutes. For me, this silicone addressing of South Afrika’s racism in the 1950s and 60s is patronizing.
I find this book to be full of innovation but lacking in creativity. The only ounce of creativity that is glaring is the fact that a story set in Joburg in the 50s was conceived and written. The writing is impeccable, especially in the year 2000 section of the book where similarity leads to relativity. For a domestic dying alone and a father dying surrounded by family – it’s vintage 2010 South Afrika, warts and all.