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.
Edited by Sophy Kohler (who is also the Cape Assistant Editor of BOOK SA), Imago publishes poetry, short stories and creative essays by University of Cape Town past and present students and staff. The journal is designed and produced by Sophy Kohler and Electric Book Works.
Issue 1 includes contributions by Simon Abbott, Diane Awerbuck, Leila Bloch, Kyle Fullerton, John Higgins, Karen Jennings, Matthew Kalil, Jordan Kantey, Matthew Koehorst, Sophy Kohler, Emma Lombard, Peter Merrington, Masande Ntshanga, Redvers, Farrah Schwab, Oliver Strang and Nick Wicht.
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Hazel Frankel lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, close to where she was born. She is an artist, calligrapher and teacher, currently registered for a doctorate in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. A collection of poetry, Drawing from Memory, was published by Cinnamon Press in 2007. Counting Sleeping Beauties (Jacana, 2009) was shortlisted for the 2006/07 European Union Literary Award.
“When I began writing, I had no intention of writing a novel – I didn’t know I could. I wrote small vignettes that were poems in prose, but when I gathered these together they were like beads, jewels waiting to be strung.
Spanning the pogrom years in Lithuania and 1950s South Africa, Counting Sleeping Beauties weaves a delicate tale of despair, loss, love and attachment to place. It evokes the post-war years in heartbreaking detail, tracing relationships within an extended family and their struggles with guilt and grief.
A multigenerational story, the Jewish family is central to the narrative. Its values are explored through the voices of the bobba, Leah, the mother Susan, the young girl, Hannah, and the extended family member, the domestic worker, Sina. It blends South African histories and cultures using a polyglot of Yiddish, Sotho, Afrikaans and English to build the characters and express their viewpoints.
My main impetus was to uncover how the characters were affected differently by one critical event and how this complicated their relationships. I worked outwards from this kernel and framed it with a narrative that begins in the present, returns to the past and concludes in the present. Isolation is an important theme, as the characters never communicate their feelings or opinions with each other.
Set in an era familiar to me, I drew on my memories of Johannesburg when the Wits Rag Parade with its floats and queen was an annual highlight, when the woman’s place was almost unarguably in the home and the domestic worker had no status or rights. I enjoyed the explorations, making discoveries and learning as I went along.
The title of the book was initially Girl on a Swing, which indicates the pivotal role of the child, then Stone House, pointing to the overriding impact of place, but Counting Sleeping Beauties carries multiple meanings, and the way it combines with the cover image is both beautiful and sinister.
The novel has been many years in the making and has gone through numerous incarnations – originally there were six voices, two of whom were male. This created a concatenation. Instead, by focusing on the women I could emphasise the drama of the domestic.
Although I dreamed of being an artist, finding that I’m a writer is an unexpected delight. The processes are not that dissimilar: one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one stroke at a time, a few minutes here or there may be enough to catch a thought or idea or image, each a link in an episode, a chapter, a painting. In both writing and painting, nothing happens until there are marks on the page.”
Hazel’s exhibition of paintings opens at The Thompson Gallery, 78 3rd Avenue, Melville, Johannesburg, on Sunday, 2 August, at 15h30, where Counting Sleeping Beauties will be available.
Counting Sleeping Beauties will be launched at Exclusive Books, Sandton City, Johannesburg, on 11 August, 18h00 for 18.30.
I have an interview on Rethabile Masilo’s Poéfrika, an interesting and informative site for Africa-inspired writing.
Rethabile, a Lesotho national living in France, asked me some challenging questions and I’ve contributed a line to an ongoing poem here.
This is the first in a series of poet interviews on Poéfrika, so stay connected to the site.