Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Life once the fairytale's over

Marriage Vows by Gail Schimmel Kwela Books R165

It's Jordi Gordan's 55th birthday. Happily married to Hal since her early 20s, she rises on this birthday, and looks in the mirror. "I pull the skin on my face tight by placing my hands on my cheeks and pulling back, toying with the idea of a face-lift ? I let my face fall back and poke at my crow's feet - the wrinkles gather at my eyes like old ladies gossiping on a corner."

While Hal cooks her traditional birthday breakfast, she receives an SMS from Nico, the man who has skirted the boundaries of her life for more than 30 years, while she has remained happily married to the man now cooking her food. "This brief mourning is all that Nico is allowed of my birthday, and for a moment, seated on the toilet, I belong to Nico."

So begins a novel, in deceptively simple language, that explores what it means to love two men, yet to stay true to your own belief in the sanctity of marriage and the vows so quickly repeated.

The language is light, unadorned of excess or flowery adjectives. Jordi could be talking out loud as the narrative progresses. As such it might be easy to dismiss this book, yet this is a book that raises issues around infidelity, the nature of love, and whether to remain true to your feelings or your beliefs.

This is not a simple tale, although it is simply told. Marriage Vows, Gail Schimmel's debut novel, is as nuanced and layered as, well, yes a 10-tier wedding cake.

The novel moves between past and present, alternating between Jordi's 55th birthday and the memories of her life with Hal, and their two children, now grown, and the meeting with Nico. In London on a business trip, her husband and children back in Johannesburg, she meets the man who will haunt her.

Jordi kept me reading right till the end; she is a strong, yet heart-breaking character. Schimmel has painted her portrait in vivid strokes.

A successful businesswoman, Jordi has married her career with her family. On the night of her birthday she is hosting a business dinner party for her husband, instead of spending it with her family and friends. A first clue to Jordi's nature - somewhat selfless - is that she is sacrificing this night for Hal without much complaint.

We learn of a cherished sister, Belinda, who died of cancer, in love with a married man, and taking the secret of his identity to the grave with her. Infidelity and temptation lurk, cosy bedfellows.

The story is peopled by the other sister, Denise, cold and distant, and her mother makes an early appearance, talking mostly high school French as dementia takes hold.

There's Jordi's best friend, Sally, whose multiple marriages and the six children she had produced serve as foil to Jordi's own quiet, but loving and only marriage. "Sex on a stick," Sally says referring to her latest husband, Neil, 10 years her junior, but "recently I have started thinking that Sally's enthusiasm about Neil is sliding. Occasionally she lets slip a snide comment about pretty faces not being all they're cracked up to be."

The past and the present continue to intertwine. As Jordi shops, has lunch with Sally and prepares for the evening, a portrait of her marriage emerges. Throughout the years there's Nico, who Jordi met at the age of 30, but it's a relationship both push away for various reasons. Jordi's belief in her vows, Nico's need to stay close to a dying wife.

Timing, so important in relationships, jars and disconnects the two. When Nico remarries, Jordi feels pierced, yet when he offers to leave his second wife for her, again alignment is out of sync. Yet, the realisation has its effects: "The knowledge that Nico would leave his wife for me was bad. It seeped like poison through my thoughts, and its bitter fingers plucked at my day. Every time something went wrong, the thought would be there: I don't have to take this; I have an alternative."

As the novel builds to its climax, there's a breathless, almost thriller-like impulse in the reader to get to the end, to find out what happens. I was left just about shocked by the ending. Schimmel has revealed no clues. What remains is a sense of how memory distorts, and of how one can be so wrapped up in strong beliefs of the way a marriage should be that the truth of a relationship remains clouded.

Schimmel's strong craftsmanship moves this story along seamlessly weaving between the times. This is an important debut by a local writer of real power, and I look forward to reading her next novel.

Published in The Star Tonight November 20 2008

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