Jewels and Other Stories Paperback – Oct 1 2010
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Jewels and Other Stories Reviews A Gem: Dawn Promislow's Jewels More often than not, I'm put off by plain, bare-bones, minimalist writing, and here's why: simplicity of language should point to clarity of thought, but too often it signifies nothing but the desire to be - well, bare-bones and minimalist. Flip through literary journals, and you find a bland sameness to much of the prose, tepid language that avoids passion and serves no literary end. So imagine my surprise when I encountered the pared-down prose of Dawn Promislow's first short story collection, Jewels. It's the text equivalent of seeing straight to the bottom of a very deep lake. Its writing is spare in the service of clarity, each sentence shaped by the effort to see truth and bring it to light. Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa; she's lived in England and now resides in Toronto, but her subject-matter is the disfiguring quality of life as it was lived under apartheid in her homeland. While bringing the particulars of her characters' situations to life, she also illuminates universal themes: the human awakening from innocence to knowledge, the awareness that much of life is beyond our control, the truth that everything passes and nothing abides. There are fourteen brief and understated stories in this slender book, many of them told from the point of view of genteel, middle-class white women who slowly become aware of apartheid's corroding horror as it leaches into their gardens and homes. In the opening story, "Pool," the author skillfully overlaps the points of view of a young girl and her family's house-servant (Ficksen) who cleans their pool. Ficksen is the centre of the story (the only one named), and he's never been in the water. The ending is no less powerful for it being expected. Likewise, in "Secret," the white first-person narrator describes life in a placid rural town where she's employed in a shop; a black man, Philemon, comes looking for work. When the police chase him down, the woman awakens to the fact that her world is awash with cruel secrets that no one has ever revealed to her. Equally poignant are stories told from the point of view of black South Africans. In "Bottle," a nanny, Bella, brings joy to her husband as she shares with him some ocean water collected from her first visit to the sea with her white employers. The first-person voice of a servant, Ester, is beautifully rendered in "Just a Job," when she finds a position with a kindly couple, only to witness the breakup of their marriage. Yet for a glimpse at moral catastrophe, nothing matches "Wan," a story that packs a lifetime of guilt, remorse and devastating secrecy into six short pages. It's told by an artist preoccupied with painting a canvas of pure space (a bit obvious, perhaps, that it's white); she's haunted by the fact that her husband's given shelter to a colleague on the run for political reasons. Distressed by his presence and unable to work, she embarks on a desperate course of action, bringing herself face-to-face with the reality of the police-state that was the guarantor of her lovely home and the peace of her artist's studio. "But my canvas," she says at the end. "...It's perfect, as I envisioned it... I did it, I did it, and you can see it, you can see it, you can see it..." In her agitated words, we hear the voice of madness trying to crush the voice of a guilty conscience, and it's Promislow's gift that allows us to hear both. Jewels is a work of beauty, hard-won honesty, and the quiet unfolding of insight. It's also, as the title suggests, a gem. - The Thoughtful Blogger, September 30 2011 Promislow's (likely) autobiographical sketch of her transitory and almost mirage-like relationship with a black student is the most compelling in a group of stories that explores the South Africa in the days of late apartheid. The realities by this South African-born Canadian will resonate with all who grew up in days of insensitivity, insecurity and sense of right. The perspectives tell of the backyard dwellers who raised the children of others while neglecting their own, and, in one instance, the white woman imprisoned by her own fears -Cape Times April 2011 Some fiction makes us work a while before words and images and meanings begin to integrate. What we seek is that longed-for subliminal collaboration between author and reader - the point at which you're not so much reading as simply seeing and knowing, impelled on by a need to know more. Pool, the opening story in Dawn Promislow's debut collection, arrives at clear seeing in the first short paragraph, then the images segue into intrigue: "The room was spare and clean, like a jail cell, almost. ... She peeped in whenever she could. Maybe Ficksen would reveal to her some essential clue about himself." The story is a model of clean and uncluttered prose, tight structuring and firm control over its effects. A young apartheid-era South African girl is drawn to the dark and silent otherness of a family servant, "a shadow." Then we shift to Ficksen's point of view, but Promislow, in an inspired choice, still doesn't let us get inside him. We see what he sees, but finally remain as separate from him as the girl and her family, even when disaster strikes. In Jewels, young Carol is fascinated by her nanny's brown skin, "smooth and glossy as polished stone." She visits Eva's cramped room, drawn by the scents of soap and Nivea cream that envelope her. A photo of Eva's three children sits on a milk-crate table. Later, Eva confides to Carol that she despairs for her children's future. Carol attempts an act of charity that fails. We watch her moments of quiet contentment with Eva begin to weigh on her with guilt, "like stones." Bottle's title is its central symbol. Two nannies go with a white family to their seaside house and are treated by their employers to some leisure time on the beach - the first time they have seen the ocean. The women fill bottles with souvenir seawater, to be carted home to cramped rooms in Johannesburg. In Somewhere, an empty-nester housewife chafes at her unwavering routine. Each day, Cecile drives the five minutes to her small dress shop, though it essentially runs itself with the help of a single employee. One morning, she simply drives past the shop and out onto the highway. As the landscape unspools before Cecile, Promislow's sharp description evokes an exhilarating shift from stifling routine to a fresh and vibrant being-in-the-world. At home later, savouring her secret freedom, Cecile fibs just enough to let her husband believe she spent an ordinary day at the shop. Spanning 26 years, Billy takes us from a boy's impoverished childhood in a shantytown to a post-apartheid life transformed: as an adult artist with his own "Jo'burg" apartment. Promislow's prose stays out of the way while the realities of Billy's childhood rise to the senses from the page: cruel heat, dry stream beds, scrawny chickens, tin walls too hot to touch, dust roads stretching away to the horizon, rare storm bursts that spur rarer laughter. Just a Job, like Billy, unfolds in an anecdotal first-person narrative that manages to retain the spare clarity of other stories' more authorial voice, while happily avoiding some of their thematic underscoring. The job in question is a woman's housekeeping work for a divorcing white couple. We gradually catch that we're witnessing a half-conscious passion, inevitably unresolved. Secret presents a white shop assistant, her Afrikaans boss and a newly employed black "packing boy" who proves to be unexpectedly educated. This story cuts spectacularly to the true terrors of apartheid. The climax shocks, as police brutality rips apart a quiet afternoon. A few stories feel laboured. What She Carried offers a weighty analogy (a woman unwittingly carries both her boyfriend's baby and his illegal drug shipment) that finally overwhelms its underdeveloped characters. Another tale presents a painter and her intriguing canvas-in-progress, then lavishes the painting with symbolic importance in the closing paragraph. Promislow's most notable lapse is her too-conspicuous nailing down of themes, often with closing messages that have already been more subtly revealed simply by the turns of her storytelling. At their best, the stories have a compression of description and a simplicity of narrative arc that can indeed be jewel-like in lucidity. The real strength of the collection is its success at bridging the polarities of race and class that so distress its liberal white folks, characters whose pained awareness of the brutally enforced otherness of black lives forms the spine of many stories. Between and within stories, Promislow shifts us repeatedly from white households to the lives of the servants who do their dull and dirty work. We're admitted to both worlds, yet the essential otherness of the black world remains intact, never allowing us to forget the entrenched privilege distorting the white viewpoint. The deadlocked society of apartheid is strikingly rendered. - The Globe and Mail, April 1 2011 Writing through the landscapes and lives of South Africa in the 1970s, Promislow does not attempt to gloss over, or even clarify, the complexity of racial and familial relationships. It is with deceptive simplicity and an admirable economy of words that Promislow wades through the vicissitudes of her characters' lives. Promislow's fourteen stories are intricately crafted and seductively personable tales of basic human relation. In the span of a few pages, she reveals the collusion of the past's formative events with the effacements of time, while maintaining a clarity and levity of voice that comes only with the confidence of a well-chosen word. "Jewels," the namesake story of the collection, is clearly demonstrative of Promislow's talents and her poignant understanding of the incantatory nature of memory. A story of childhood memory, the timid voice of "Jewels'" reconstructs the potent details of a child's awakening to social and racial relations with sublime calm and surprising poetry. What Promislow so convincingly conveys is the maturity that these moments of childhood possess. Far from frivolous, it is these memories that remain with us throughout our lives. Their realization in the moment as things of enduring significance comes to us not as a sudden shock, but rather, "slowly, slowly, [...] with certainty, like a stain" (9). In this story, a grown woman reflects on herself as a young girl who has just recognized her emotional misstep in offering money to her nanny. Now as a woman, she still remembers the shape of this recognition: "She was not powerful, as she had thought. She could not, with her limp hands, create the world in her image, after all" (9). Another theme touched upon by Promislow with great nuance and insight is the distance that can separate families. Not only the measurable miles that keep us from our kin, but the intangible spaces that grow and threaten to eventually divide us. Somehow Promislow manages to charge these moments of social dissolution with a promise of deeper connection in the future, saving them from the threat of inconsequence. "Bottle" and "Just a Job" are beautiful examples of this. Both stories also delicately probe the boundaries of Master and servant in Apartheid South Africa, revealing a rarely articulated tenderness betwixt the two. This tenderness is perhaps only fleeting, guarded as it is by the realities and proprieties of social convention. Nonetheless, there is a current of human connection that runs throughout these interactions as represented by Promislow, defying conventional, binary understandings of class and race. Without falling into the familiar narrative of racial reconciliation, Promislow pinpoints instances of connection occasioned by distance, death, empathy, loss, separation, and joy. A truly exciting writer, Promislow fills an obvious dearth of dynamism and reflection in current representations of South Africa and South Africans. - Maple Tree Literary Supplement,
From the Back Cover
The landscape of 1970s South Africa lives and breathes in these highly evocative stories, populated by unforgetting characters defined in their own ways by a repressive political system: a middle-class white girl observes a servant from her hideout in the garden; a woman sees the sea for the first time and takes it home in a bottle; a sheltered, small-town white woman drives out for the first time on her own; a young man goes away in the dark of night to become a freedom fighter; post-Apartheid, an artist finds inspiration in the eart...See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
No story runs longer than ten pages, forcing Promislow to write tight, controlled prose. The result is fourteen haunting tales that, though repetitive at times, clearly illuminate a tense and divided society.