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Trauma and forgiveness at heart of new novel



Johannesburg in the 1970s is the setting of a newly published novel, We Were the Newmans, by Beverley Lester, where the quiet innocence of a Highveld spring afternoon is shattered by an unimaginable act of violence in a Jewish family.

Some survive, some don’t, and the novel follows ripples of trauma from South Africa to the United Kingdom to Chile and back again, against a South Africa trying to forge a path of healing through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from London, where she lives and practices as psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, and lecturer, Lester says that while such acts of violence in a Jewish family seem almost unheard of, she knows of a number of such atrocities that occurred in Jewish homes while she was growing up in Johannesburg.

“It’s not unknown. Some were a result of mental health, some as a result of the loss of affluence. Just because we’re Jewish, doesn’t mean we aren’t safeguarded from intense despair,” she says. “For example, in a lot of shuls in London, on the inside of the toilet doors is information for women in case they are being abused. For some, it may be their only moment of safety and privacy to get help. It shows that it can happen anywhere.”

This is Lester’s first novel, and it centres on the fictional character of Ruth Newman, a teenager growing up in a typical Johannesburg Jewish family. The rhythm of their lives is familiar and ordinary: driving through the Karoo for family holidays, Shabbat dinners where underlying resentments simmer along with the chicken soup, Thursday night supper at the local steakhouse, and what seem like minor squabbles between parents.

But Ruth is suddenly ripped from that world and spends years in London, where she heals but also becomes a shell of herself. Time in Chile brings her into confrontation with other traumas, and the way women create rituals for healing when family members simply disappear under a despotic regime. But it’s when she finally returns to the country of her birth that she faces how much she is willing to forgive.

Lester was born in London and grew up in South Africa and Israel. She studied law in Johannesburg, and worked in publishing in Tel Aviv before settling in the United Kingdom. She is particularly interested in transgenerational trauma. She has written three children’s stories and a collection of short stories.

She was motivated to write the book as long as 15 years ago. Reflecting on a friend’s early death, she realised she would regret it one day if she didn’t give more attention to her writing. Her work as a therapist ties into writing, she says. “Therapy is largely about managing, negotiating, and thinking about ourselves in relation to loss. It’s about holding people’s stories. Often people struggle with forgiveness and how to move on without bitterness. The book looks at these questions.”

In addition, Lester was profoundly affected by a documentary about the TRC that she saw at the cinema a few years ago which included interviews with perpetrators and victims of apartheid. “The lights went up afterwards, the audience was mostly South African, and everyone was sobbing, including me. I couldn’t stop crying, and felt overwhelmed with guilt, shame, and confusion about my South African identity.”

This feeling of “if only” infuses the novel, where Ruth grows up in sheltered suburbia, coming of age in a space of naiveté while the country burns. Just as the Soweto riots of June 1976 burst a bubble of ignorance, Ruth’s own confrontation with reality follows in October 1976, when violence ruptures her happy youth.

Lester says it’s no coincidence that she placed the event in 1976. “Those were years of brutality, and the event was very much a response to that environment. The personal is political, and the political is personal.”

The characters are richly drawn, and their voices ring authentically true. Lester says she “breathed in” a South African voice during her childhood, which flows onto the page. One character, an elderly black woman named Constance, shares her experience of the TRC in the form of letters, and Lester writes her voice in a way that is real and raw. The author says she was conscious about writing the characters “with integrity”.

It’s a tough time for writers, Lester says, as some publishers are nervous about authors writing characters that are different to themselves in case of a backlash that they aren’t written authentically. But Lester feels it’s a shame to force writers to write about only their experiences, believing writing is a way to bridge gaps in understanding each other.

The period that Ruth spends in Chile explores the important role that women play in healing broken societies. For example, the arpillera is a tapestry that women made using materials from their missing loved ones’ clothes, and the La Cuenca is a Latin American couples’ dance that women danced on their own, with a photograph of their loved one.

“If we look at the recent murder of [London resident] Sarah Everard, most of the mourning and protest has been driven by devastated women,” says Lester. “Women have always found ways to demonstrate, to say, ‘Stop, you are destroying us!’ Can you arrest a woman for making a tapestry? No, you can’t, but they were significant and important forms of storytelling and resistance.”

Lester says that while her characters are “hugely damaged”, she wanted to “create a feeling that maybe people can get a second chance. If we have compassion for the characters, maybe we can find compassion for ourselves. We don’t hear enough about people who have never recovered [mentally] from atrocities like the Holocaust. People and life are complicated.”

When it comes to generational trauma, Lester says, “Your history is your history. It gives us our compassion and empathy. I’m hoping that this book is about compassion and recognising the complexity of being human.”

  • ‘We Were the Newmans’ is available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

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