Jen, the three-letter girl, changed her name when she was still a toddler, trying her best to get rid of the Jewish identity that her Holocaust surviving parents tried to thrust on her. She becomes a rebellious teenager and ultimately shames her family when she becomes pregnant with a non-Jew’s children. Forced to marry the Irishman, Gordon Sullivan, she soon discovers that her parents’ fears, religion and superstitions has rubbed off on her more than she could have ever imagined and in turn she becomes what she hated. Her twin daughters, Alize and Paola, has to face their mother’s unruly method of parenting as their father stay complacent throughout their lives, but behind those blue Irish eyes, he sees more than he wants to.
Us and Them by Rosemund J. Handler is a novel that is written in an A-chronological manner and each of the four members of the family gets their chance to tell not only their personal story, but also the events as they happened. However, all of the stories ultimately leads to Jen, or Chaya Laya – her Jewish birth names – and how she had such a negative effect on her family. That being said, how could her children ever understand why she did what she did without forcing that fear into them as well? Psychologically there must have been something wrong, of course it may have very well been in the family’s genes, but so many traumatic circumstances could also have been the result of a curse, right? These are the questions you’ll ask yourself when finished with the novel and although there aren’t any answers, Us and Them will linger in your mind long after you’ve put the book away.
If you’ve ever read Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, you’ll be aware that it’s very much written in the same way, except this time around it’s from a Jewish point of view and how a Jewish-South African needed to come to terms with her own identity, whilst keeping to what her people value in regards to ethics, religion, right and wrong and the whole superstitiousness her own family believed in. That being said, history is also taken into account and the Holocaust is also a prominent subject in the novel.
Us and Them is a deep book that really captures the spirit of this family, the good and mostly bad is on display and as a reader, you just can’t fully comprehend why Jen is the way she is – perhaps it is because we’re not in her shoes? – but then again, she’s somewhat relate-able in some odd way. Her striving for survival, for her children’s survival, it’s absolutely magnificently captured in words…
This is a South African novel and although I’m sure that not many people will understand Yiddish, it’s prominent in the book as well as other languages such as Afrikaans, Xhosa and at times even a bit of French. However, this will not hinder the reading of the book much, what could hinder the flow of reading though is the fact that there aren’t quotation marks used for dialogue and it becomes difficult to not become lost as to who said what. Other than that, I found no fault whatsoever. The editing was remarkable (besides the lack of quotation marks for dialogue), the plot really enticing and the characters extremely human. It was basically a breath of fresh air and I’d advise anyone who enjoys a good book to get their hands on it. Rosemund J. Handler, the author of the critically acclaimed Tsamma Season, can be proud of Us and Them, because it’s definitely one of those books that will soon be on the university reading lists.
For those who are interested in getting their copy of Us and Them, please click on the image to be taken directly to Penguin Books South Africa’s page where you can place your order.
Title: Us and Them
Author: Rosemund J Handler
Publisher: Penguin Books SA
Pub date: August 2012