Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens was awarded the second Mann Booker prize in 1970 for The Elected Member. Assembling a complete collection of every award-winner since 1969 was fun. A few titles were tough and had to be ordered from England, but as this novel shows, it was well-worth the effort.

Rubens tells the story of a Jewish couple who immigrated to England from Lithuania. They had three children, a son, Norman, and two daughters, Esther and Bella. Norman was a brilliant child, learning a dozen languages by the time he was ten. He was headed for a brilliant law career until circumstances caused his fall into insanity. With his wife, Sarah, dead from cancer, Rabbi Zweck was forced to cope with his son’s mental illness alone with Bella. Esther had left the family home after a dispute about her marriage plans. All these characters have secrets, and in a series of skillfully unfolded flashbacks, we begin to piece together the struggles this family has endured.

The intensely detailed characters make this novel more than deserving of the then newly-founded prize. The descriptions of Norman’s illness are frightening, sad, and gripping. Only the week of finals grading delayed my finishing this novel until today.

Rubens is a writer I will seek out for other titles. She was able to infuse episodes of real humor among those of tragedy and sorrow. One example is when Mrs. Goldberg comes into Rabbi Zweck’s shop after witnessing Norman’s removal to a mental institution. Abie, as Sarah called her husband, does not want to talk to Mrs. Goldberg out of embarrassment, but as she silently enters the shop, makes a purchase, and opens the door to leave, Abie suddenly wants to talk to her. She immediately turns around, sits down, and spends the rest of the afternoon consoling her friend.

Rubens used quite a few Yiddish words. Some could be figured out from the context, but a few could not. I wonder if a Yiddish dictionary is available.

An interesting aspect of the novel was figuring out who the “elected member” was and for what purpose. As the lives of the family members are laid bare, the answer to this puzzle becomes evident.

The Elected Member was one of the more difficult Booker Prize titles to locate, but if you can track down a copy, you will not be disappointed. Five stars

--Chiron, 12/14/08

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