Tackling taboos in novels about the Jewish community

  • MarilynCohen6
Author and former journalist Marilyn Cohen de Villiers once failed a composition exam in Standard 5 because the teacher said she had “too much of an imagination”.
by MIRAH LANGER | Aug 02, 2018

Is it any surprise, then, that she has now just published her third novel, Deceive and Defend?

In her storyline in this book, she manages to weave in issues such as incest, mental health, the judicial system, employment equity, media ethics and emigration.

All her novels centre on the Jewish community.

“I try to write what I call ‘issue novels’,” she explains. “They are novels that I hope will make people think about issues they may not have considered before. Or perhaps my stories will enable them to think about things from a slightly different perspective.”

Deceive and Defend is the completion of a trilogy that centres on a prominent, completely fictional, Johannesburg Jewish family, the Silvermans, and on characters who intersect their lives.

Each novel tackles a number of controversial issues. Her first one, A Beautiful Family, looked at domestic abuse, especially in religious communities. Her second, When Time Fails, investigated land reform and the apartheid legacy.

Cohen De Villiers says her intention with the first novel was directly linked to the Jewish community “to raise awareness within our community that abuse is not confined to ‘them’, the poor and the uneducated”. Since that book, her focus has expanded.

When Time Fails has quite a strong Christian focus and I use this to look at how a particular community – the Afrikaners – have to reconcile their religious beliefs with changes to the political order,” she says.

Ultimately, explains Cohen de Villiers, “while A Beautiful Family and Deceive and Defend are set largely within the Jewish community, I think the social commentary in my novels could be applied to any middle-class community in South Africa”.

As a former journalist, Cohen De Villiers’ flair for factual research is the basis for her fictional forays. “I think that I will always be a journalist at heart… I do a great deal of research before I even start writing. The idea is to make my stories, my settings and my characters as real as possible.

“I hope this kind of factual realism gives my stories a richer texture than might otherwise have been the case.”

When it came to selecting the titles of the novel, Cohen de Villiers explains that A Beautiful Family did link to the subject matter. It was also chosen “because I thought it would feature near the top of any alphabetical list of titles”.

For the novel When Time Fails, she took a more symbolic approach. “For me, a striking feature of the eastern Free State landscape are the rows of poplar trees dotted about,” she explains. She used this imagery within the narrative, which is set on a farm in this area. Later, she discovered that poplars traditionally represent time – and, in the case of a character based on the farm who dies in their youth, indeed, the story was a case of “when time fails”.

As for the title, Deceive and Defend, “it just came to me”, she says.

The fascinating juxtaposition of South African identities that make up Cohen De Villiers’ cast of characters is rooted in the author’s own life experiences. “I’m a Jewish Joburg girl. I was simply writing about my community, my people, my neighbourhood. Similarly, I drew on my ‘honorary Afrikaner’ status – having been married to an Afrikaner for 32 years,” she explains.

In fact, one of the heartaches for Cohen De Villiers is that her husband died shortly after she finished writing her second novel.

“I basically lost my writing mojo. I made a half-hearted effort to start writing book three back in 2016, but I didn’t have a clear idea in my head of where it was going.”

In fact, it was only an invitation to speak at the Jewish Literary Festival in Cape Town in June this year that spurred Cohen De Villiers on to complete her work.

Now that the third book has been published, she can spot her novels on the shelves of Exclusive Books. People approach her and tell her how much they’ve enjoyed reading them. “It’s a little surreal,” she says.

What’s next? “Ideas for my next novel are swirling around in my head. I’m pretty sure about the issue I want to tackle – I’m just not sure how to go about it yet. I’m doing lots of research.”


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