The Booker Prize

Reading the Booker Prize winners (2): The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

Title: The Elected Member

Author: Bernice Rubens

Genre: Fiction

Year: 1969

No, he would not open his eyes. If they were still there, he could rely on them to stay. He pulled the pillow over his ears. He didn’t want to hear them either. Yet he wanted to check that they were still there. He dreaded their presence, but their sudden absence would have terrified him more. They were the only witnesses to his sanity.

Norman Zweck was a child prodigy. At twelve he spoke seven languages, and right after law school he was already an acclaimed barrister. But that was before.

Now, forty-one and still living with his father and younger sister, he lies in bed most of the day to keep track of them. He’s the only one who sees them, and his family believes him to be going mad. But he knows they are there, and his only relief is taking the white pills he keeps hidden under a board in the floor. When his father finally takes the decision to hospitalise him for treatment, they all start exploring their memories in search of the cause of his problems. His father, his sisters – the one that lives with them, but also the one who is estranged from the family – and Norman himself are all guilty to some extent. But only talking and coming to terms with their failings will allow them to heal as a family.

A closer look

Okay, first of all, let me take this off my chest. The style of this book irked me to no end. And if you think the problem is the very peculiar way Rabbi Zweck (the father) and the other Jewish characters speak, stop there: that was actually one of the few stylistic choices I agree with, and it gave the characters more personality. The problem was everything else: the way the point of view switched continually, like a crazy spinning top, and for no reason whatsoever; the way thoughts were not marked in any way, and they just appeared out of nowhere during the narration; the way the character’s feelings or motivations are repeated and explained and told again as if the author was afraid the reader couldn’t understand otherwise. Argh.

Okay, now let’s get into the story for a second.

We begin the story with Norman hiding in his bed. He knows they are on the floor, writhing and waiting for a chance to get on his body. He toys with the idea of taking his own life, but he can’t bring himself to do it, not before someone else sees them and proves that he’s not going crazy. He doesn’t fully realise how his condition is making his father and sister’s life harder every day. He feels like they are negating the evidence only to spite him, and he hates them for that. On their part, his sister Bella can’t forgive him for the suffering he’s causing to their father, and their father feels that Norman’s failings are his fault. When he finally decides to hospitalise him, he struggles with his guilt from the moment the doctors come to take Norman, to the moment he gets back home alone. He failed his own son, his brilliant son, and he finally gave up on him.

As everyone in the family struggles to come to term with the present situation, we follow them through memories of their past, when Rabbi Zweck came to London for the first time, when he met his wife Sarah, when their children where still young and they looked like a normal family. And then later, when cracks start to appear, and some things didn’t feel normal anymore, but none of them had the courage to admit it.

The most interesting parts of the book – and the best written in general, in my opinion – are the flashbacks. I would read through the sections set in the present just to get to the next memory, to try and piece together the events that brought forth such a gloom present.

I feel like there is not a real protagonist; the space is shared almost equally between Norman and his father, with Bella being next. None of them is blameless, but I have to say I didn’t care for Norman for most of the novel, and even when I managed to feel sorry for him, I found the parts set in the hospital the most boring of all.

The whole novel is an exploration of family relationship, and how small actions can be misunderstood, and cause ripples that only keep expanding. All the members of the family are selfish in some ways, and this rubs off onto the others. They hurt each other without even realising it at times, and time and again their actions bring them only sorrow.

There’s not much more I can say without delving into spoilers, and I feel like the mystery surrounding the family’s past is the most interesting part of the story, so I will stop here. I will say, I found myself tearing up a bit toward the ending of the book, but I still feel like it could have used another round of edits. My ebook was also full of typos, but that might be just my luck.

Once again, I cannot fathom what gained this book a Booker Prize. I did enjoy it a little more than the previous one, I guess, but still. I hope I’ll soon find something I can truly enjoy, and I cant’ wait until I get to more recent works.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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