Counting Sleeping Beauties by Hazel Frankel (Jacana, 2009)
A review by Kayang Gagiano
Reading Counting Sleeping Beauties felt similar to paging through a book of impressionist paintings. Hazel Frankel has adeptly combined a series of vivid, dream-like vignettes, narrated by her four female characters, to create a stirring and sensitively-wrought novel.
These vignettes capture moments in the lives of four women (and the men they love), all living together in Johannesburg during the 1950s: aged Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant Leah Gerson, her adult daughter, daydreamer Hannah, and their domestic worker, Sina – a young Sotho woman from rural Pietersburg who has come to Egoli (Johannesburg) to seek out the father of her child.
Sickly, bed-ridden Leah is largely out of touch with her high-strung, slightly neurotic daughter, Susan. She obsesses about the brutal pogrom years of her youth in a Lithuanian shtetl (village), immersing herself in memories and poetry. Susan, meanwhile, is so caught up in her personal miseries and own sense of inadequacy that she tends to overlook her sensitive daughter Hannah. Then there is the faithful Sina, who because of her race and position in the house has her own heart-wrenching losses go largely unacknowledged.
Differences in language and culture and, most significantly, generation gaps, create emotional schisms between relatives on the one hand, and employer and employee on the other. Frankel incorporates Yiddish, Sotho and Afrikaans expressions, songs, and poetry into her story to great effect. I really enjoyed reading about aspects of Jewish culture I was unfamiliar with as well as evocative descriptions of life in bygone Johannesburg.
Counting Sleeping Beauties revolves around a harrowing family tragedy. Frankel examines with great insight and pathos how life unravels for her protagonists after this pivotal event. Human frailty, selfishness and self-castigation all end up eroding the fabric of a once happy home, creating a cast of lonely, isolated individuals. It is a compliment to Frankel’s skill as an author that I wished more than once that I could shake a character by the shoulders and beg them to realise what they were doing to themselves and their loved ones.
Frankel’s novel has a special focus on the destructiveness of repression and the negative effect this has on children. The novel left me pensive.
Kayang Gagiano’s review of Counting Sleeping Beauties was first published in Sawubona Magazine, April 2010, and is reproduced with the editor’s permission.