Review: The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

This novel, the first by a woman to win the Booker prize, begins with its protagonist, 41-year-old Norman Zweck, in crisis. Locked in his bedroom, which was previously his parents’, he suffers his fifth bout of psychosis brought on by an amphetamine addiction, hallucinating that silver fish are crawling about in the shadows, threatening to overwhelm him. Over the course of a day his long-suffering father and sister Bella call in various experts and eventually Norman is sectioned and taken away to an asylum. While in the institution Norman’s psychosis ebbs and flows while his family run their shop downstairs and wrestle with why their son and brother is so unwell. His father becomes obsessed with finding the “murderer” who dealt his son drugs, blind to his own role in Norman’s illness.

The Elected Member is a contained and seething study of madness and familial obligation. Initially Norman’s family seems sympathetic, suffering out of their empathy for Norman’s plight. But gradually a more dangerous idea emerges. In the hospital, Norman continues to be supplied amphetamines through another patient known only as the Minister, who complains of his family that, “When I die, it won’t be my death, any more’n’ it’s been my life. It’ll be something that ‘appened to my Mum”. Norman feels the same:

his life had been an event for them all, it was something that had happened to them and had ultimately nothing to do with Norman at all.

Norman is his family’s prodigal son, invested with all their hopes and dreams, yet punished when he tries to live independently. He’s also a bit of a brat, falling for the masculine nonsense his family has invested in him. His problems blind him to his sisters’, and his role in them. Esther is estranged after marrying a non-Jewish man; Bella is unmarried and infantilised, still wearing the white socks she wore as a girl.

Yet the novel refuses this simplistic depiction of children suffering under the tyranny of their parents, showing their father’s migration to England from Lithuania and the struggle to build a life in a different country when anti-Semitism is de rigueur on the streets of London. According to their faith, Norman’s family are the chosen people; by extension Norman is the chosen person of his family. Why, he wonders, “Did You choose us as our scapegoat for all your Neuroses? Did you elect us to carry your Wrath, Your Jealousy, Your expectation?” The novel doesn’t have an answer, only a howl of rage and pain.

Much happens off the page. It’s curiously difficult to figure out when it is set – a rare clue is that an aunt was of marriageable age during the Great War, which would set the novel some time in the 1960s. There are suggestions of sexual transgression, repressed by tradition, which may in fact have contributed to the family’s madness. It’s a curious portrait of a time when individual freedom was starting to win out over obligation.

Gay rating: 3/5 for some queer themes and suggested queer characters.

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