by Nazneen Sheikh,
The Middle Children
by Rayda Jacobs,
Post Your Opinion
by Linda Leith
NAZNEEN SHEIKH'S CHOPIN People is a novel about two middle-aged men, two marriages, two classes of Torontonians. The two men's paths cross when working-class Joe Salerno arrives to build the gazebo that Stefan Voitek has set his heart on. Joe is unhappy because Lenora, his wife of 18 years, has fallen under the sway of a local health nut who has persuaded her to abstain henceforth from meat, wine, and sex. Stefan, whose shoes cost the equivalent of Joe's weekly pay cheque, and whose grey silk suit was not stitched in Toronto, seems, on the surface, to have everything a man could desire, from an exquisite Thai wife to an enviable career as a musical impresario. As Joe responds to the Chopin drifting from inside the Voitek house, though, and Stefan comes to feel his own wife withdrawing from him, the two men begin to share wine and confidences. For all their differences, both of these men are "Chopin people" -- people who are able to resist the dehumanization of their lives in contemporary Toronto.
Nazneen Sheikh is an impressively talented novelist. The sensuousness of her prose is wedded throughout to sharp observation and a dry sense of humour (at a recital, "the expatriate community proclaimed its European heritage by the prominence of female decolletage"). This combination is rare enough, but with both Joe and Stefan drawn sympathetically, Chopin People is also a moving piece of work. Stefan's wife Maya remains sketchy, and Lenora is more a figure of fun than a woman of flesh and blood. It is a pity that Sheikh's book is marred by typographical errors (one of the more glaring being that Lenora's new age "cant" appears as "can't") and the kind of infelicities that a good editor would have dealt with briskly.
Rayda Jacobs's The Middle Children is a first collection of linked stories focusing on the experiences of a mixed-race woman named Sabah who, because she has light skin, is able to pass as white in segregated South Africa. Jacobs, herself a "middle child" -- a South African of mixed race -- was born in Cape Town, where many of these stories are set, and has lived in Toronto since 1968. Her stories, which her publisher describes as "combining autobiography and fiction," chronicle the appalling daily drama of life in a world shaped by racism. Though autobiography and fiction make for an uneasy mix in some of these stories, Jacobs does succeed in recreating that world vividly and compellingly.
In the title story, Sabah is eyeing another young woman on a subway platform:
As a denture-wearer knows another plastic smile, an afflicted middle child can tell. From the stance, the wariness in the eyes. A middle child's constant fear was to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to go to the section reserved for non-whites.
Later that morning Sabah herself will be tapped on the shoulder. Having applied to and been accepted by a restricted business school several years earlier, Sabah is now found out and presented with an ultimatum: either betray the name of her contact and emigrate, or face a jail sentence. It is in Sabah's choosing to cooperate with the police, giving them the name of the contact who made her deception possible, that Jacobs falters. What is needed here is dramatization, authorial distance, a point of view from which to focus clearly on Sabah's handling of this dilemma. It is not enough merely to be told that the individual involved died two years before the police ultimatum.
Jacobs is at her best when she stands apart from Sabah. In "'The Bet" -- a chillingly believable account of white co-workers tricking Sabah into revealing that she herself is not white -- she does this by using a point of view other than Sabah's. Elsewhere -- as in "Masquerade," which shows a younger Sabah escaping circumcision in the calipha's house -- memory provides the needed distance, and the child's eye is quicker and sharper than the blade that nicks only the inside of her leg.
Some of the finest writing in this collection, in fact, is interested less in Sabah herself than in the world through which she moves. There's a wonderful description of Cape Town in "The Starlights," for example, and in "Miss Pretorious," a pregnant teenaged girl's pleas not to marry cause "uncles to descend like prophets from the four corners of the Cape, quoting haphazardly from the Qur'an."