Janet van Eeden - 2011-10-20 Untitled Document
Title: The Other Booker Prize
Author: Azila Talit Reisenberger
Azila Talit Reisenberger has made a name for herself as a poet and short story writer, and also as South Africa’s only female rabbi for the Temple Hillel community in East London. She also heads the Hebrew section of the School of Languages and Literature at the University of Cape Town. Reisenberger wrote her first novel after doing a writer’s residency in The Netherlands last year. The result is a “memoir of a fictitious character”, as The Other Booker Prize is branded on the cover.
The Other Booker Prize is a gentle tale about a young woman, Abigail Pearlmutter, brought up in a fairly traditional Jewish household, who decides to make her own path through the world. She flouts convention, leaves her motherland of Israel, and begins her travels around the world. She follows her nose, which takes her from Paris to the French Quarter of New Orleans to the freezing wastelands of almost the North Pole, where she spends time living with Eskimos. En route her good nature and naïveté encourage people from all walks of life to help her in unlikely circumstances. Her travels are interspersed with chance meetings with a particularly good-looking young German man who continually crosses her path in the strangest of places. She is drawn to this young man, who has “nice hands”. Finally they realise that fate keeps throwing them together for a purpose. They marry and move to South Africa. The novel follows Abigail’s early married life as well as her travails as a new mother and the adjustment to having a virtual German “Baroness” for a mother-in-law.
Reisenberger’s natural humour comes through every page of this book, even in passages which deal with the loss of one of Abigail’s twins. It’s a gentle read, interspersed with ancient parables told to Abigail by her father which bring Old Testament wisdom to the narration.
The novel appears to be about Reisenberger herself, as the events are very similar to the facts of her own life. This is not a bad thing. It’s always fascinating to read more about an unusual woman who has fulfilled her life in an unlikely way. “Abigail” cannot get rid of her Israeli accent, like Reisenberger herself. She also studies Biblical Studies, Jewish Civilisation and Hebrew linguistics, just as Reisenberger did. She obtains her PhD while married, and often pregnant, as did Reisenberger. The author recalls one moment when she is about to graduate with her Masters in philosophy. As she is about to kneel before the Deputy Vice-Chancellor to get capped, he begs her not to kneel, as her protruding belly carrying twins near the end of their term threatens to topple her over. He stands himself and caps her that way instead.
This novel is amusing and gentle, full of natural wisdom gleaned from Reisenberger’s rich life experience. Reading it is almost as good as having a heart-to-heart talk with the neighbourhood rabbi. The novel leaves one feeling that most things in life can be overcome if one faces them with goodwill, humour and kindness. Reisenberger’s novel is a tender exploration of the human condition from the perspective of a particularly interesting and admirable woman.