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Sunday, 13 September 2009 02:00

Elephant in the Room

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
Maya Fowler's debut novel Elephant in the Room tells the story of Lily Fields and her family from the time Lily is a little girl trying to grasp her mother's relief at her father's death in an accident to the time she is a young adult suffering from a disastrous eating disorder. Set in the Western Cape, the story unfolds between many silences. Lily and her two sisters, Beth and the Gracie, grow up with their mother in Cape Town with occasional visits to their maternal grandparent's farm. After a fire destroys the house they live in, they have to move to the farm, where it is difficult for them to deal with the overbearing nature of their grandmother and the uncanny presence of their mentally ill uncle. Both adults put a great strain on the girls, who have to deal with their grandmother's often unreasonable requests and the secretive atmosphere surrounding their uncle. Their only ally is the housekeeper Gesiena who has her own worries to cope with (the demands of her employer and her abusive husband).

Soon after Lily and her sisters return to Cape Town with their mother, their grandfather dies under strange circumstance. When their uncle also passes away in what seems like a fire accident, the girls' grandmother sells the farm and comes to live with them in the city. Her presence in the house creates a lot of tension between the family members.

Outside the family, Lily's relationships with other girls her own age are marked by uncertainty and failed attempts at fitting in. At first she develops an uncomfortable self-awareness of her body which then gradually turns into life-threatening anorexia and bulimia. Her own and her family's inability to face and deal with the disorder has horrible consequences, not only for Lily but also for her shy little sister Gracie.

Narrating Elephant in the Room in the first person, Fowler sets herself one of the most difficult challenges: telling a story through the eyes of a child turning into a teenager. It is one of the toughest narrative perspectives which requires the child's observations to be of such a nature that they reveal the story to an adult reader without being always understood by the child. For the most part Fowler pulls it off remarkably well with only a few but unfortunately weighty glitches.

There are moments when she exposes too much, and the balance between Lily's and our understanding is out of kilter. This becomes most apparent in Lily's comments on historical events such as Mandela's release from prison or the advent of democracy in South Africa.

At other times her hinting leaves one almost clueless and some of the narrative strands are left hanging in a vacuum. Then the story requires too much guesswork for its own good. As a character the mother never really becomes tangible; her inability to grasp and deal with her daughters' problems is hardly explained. The situation of the girls' uncle also remains too opaque to the very end. There are two murders and a manslaughter in the book, but if one is not careful, all three incidents can be easily missed, or if not missed, then easily forgotten.

The greatest pity though is that the portrayal of Lily's state of mind leading up to the eating disorders is left unfinished. If it wasn't for the blurb announcing what the book was about, one would be forgiven for being caught unawares by Lily's full-blown anorexia. It is suddenly there. Also, the descriptions of her eating disorders sound too often like something out of a textbook or the brochure on anorexia and bulimia Lily carries around in her handbag. It is also difficult to judge how believable her awareness of her situation is. My impression was that she often analyses her own condition in a way that only an outsider like a therapist or somebody recovering from an eating disorder could.

However, Fowler aptly captures the loneliness Lily endures during her illness. Even more so the utter isolation that Gracie experiences in the family, as we witness her story vaguely unfolding in the background, narrated through Lily's – true to her condition – self-centred perception.

Elephant in the Room has a brilliant, open ending which makes up a lot for the book's faults. Moreover, Fowler knows how to pull heart strings, and stylistically she has plenty to offer. Her debut has some flaws, but it also holds great promise for this clearly talented young writer.

Elephant in the Room
by Maya Fowler
Kwela, 2009
Read 1691 times

1 comment

  • Comment Link ngp Wednesday, 16 February 2011 02:00 posted by ngp

    I am not a literary crit, just love books and I am thoroughly enjoying this book. I love the way she writes and because I live in Cape Town its easy to relate to. Gratz Ms Fowler and thanks for a lovely book.

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