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Tough, teasing, enigmatic: Abramowitz’s debut novel is a stunner

  • ApfelReview
FutureLife: A Protea is not an Artichoke is not a book about horticulture. It’s not a book about breakfast cereal. In some sense, it’s not even a book. It’s a work of paper-and-print performance art written by one of South Africa’s best new authors. It’s also, beguilingly, an autobiography of someone else – who, as it happens, doesn’t exist.
by SIMON APFEL | Dec 13, 2018

Mariaan Abromowitz, the protagonist of Tanya Abramowitz’s daringly experimental debut novel, lives a charmed life. Born in the Karoo at the turn of the century to a family of sheep farmers, she quickly displays a precociousness that catapults her out of her small-town beginnings into the big time.

In this almost Gumpian tale, Abramowitz goes on to found a bottled-water empire, becomes an international vice-president at a global pharmaceutical company, and plays an instrumental behind-the-scenes role in the 1969 moon landing. And then, at some point in the story, with no prior warning, Abramowitz pulls the rug…

FutureLife begins as a fairly conventional coming-of-age tale, then morphs into something more opaque and altogether darker. A shocking development midway through calls into question everything that came before. Piece by piece, beat by beat, the story and the characters start slipping through the reader’s fingers, and the big, reassuring world that the author has so meticulously built begins caving in. At some point, with no attempt at an explanation, Baruch Spinoza enters the narrative.

This feeling of being left unmoored from previous certainties is more than unnerving, it’s almost stomach-turning. And then it becomes heart-rending.

Throw away details suddenly take on ominous new significance. The oddity of the protagonist’s very Afrikaans first name and very Jewish surname gently foreshadows the disarray down the line – and emerges as a comment, perhaps none too subtle, on the fractured nature of identity.

Ultimately, the title is a bitter irony – the fictional Abromowitz caught in a spiral of trauma that keeps her trapped in her past, unable to escape the platteland, chained to her damaged, unevolving self. Different planes of reality emerge, as FutureLife takes on a surprising, perhaps even shocking genre twist, delving into sci-fi, flirting with theoretical physics, the author showing off her virtuosity with forays into string theory and the multiverse.

Also interesting is the manner in which genuine autobiographical details are sprinkled throughout the book – her father’s long-running battle with addiction, the toxic relationship with her three older sisters, the crippling childhood knee injury she suffered on a jumping castle.

Little clues lining the path of the story seem to indicate that the protagonist is ostensibly the author’s own great grandmother. And indeed, as the story unravels, FutureLife blurs the lines between fiction and reality in intriguing ways. It emerges that there’s a real life Mariaan Abromowitz who grew up in the Klein Karoo but bred cattle not sheep, while the author’s actual grandmother was a sheep farmer, but from the south of England.

Throughout FutureLife, Abramowitz exhibits a formal daring, a playfulness with tropes and traditional storytelling techniques that verges on, but never wholly tips into, satire. Ultimately, she has too much affection for these characters to poke fun at them.

This more self-serious approach is particularly apparent in the way FutureLife tackles its Jewish themes. Jewish identity (the protagonist’s and the author’s) figures prominently. Scenes of the family around the Shabbos table are almost painterly in their composition, and achingly earnest. Though one could argue that the absence of irony from these scenes is, itself, ironic.

Not all of it works. Abramowitz overdoes the whimsy, and is prone to flights of fancy that soon wear out their welcome. And at some point, her high-wire act begins to draw attention to itself, leaving the reader alienated from her captivating story and richly drawn characters.

Even so, there’s so much to admire here, and it seems churlish to fault Abramowitz for her ambition.

It’s not just her book that’s enshrouded in mystique. In a recent interview with The Citizen, Abramowitz underlined her desire to keep a low profile and her distaste for social media. A Google search reveals very little, and the name Tanya Abramowitz is almost certainly a pseudonym. In short, she has good claim to be South Africa’s own Elena Ferrante.

And, what she’s done with her debut novel is kind of extraordinary. FutureLife is a crash course on Jewish philosophy, it’s a meditation on identity, it’s a time capsule of a time and place that doesn’t actually exist. It’s simultaneously a Borgesian labyrinth and a Danielle Steel romance.

And what of proteas and artichokes? You’d have to read the book for yourself to find out.

  • Visit https://tanyaabramowitz.wixsite.com/futurelife to pre-order the book or find out more about the author.

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