Wednesday, June 15, 2011

REVIEW: The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens

The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens. This edition published 2001, Little, Brown Book Group. Literary Fiction. Winner of the Booker Prize.

The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens, won the second Booker Prize in 1970, and it's a good book but kind of a downer. It's the story of a Jewish family in roughly contemporary London, struggling as Norman, the son and prize of the family, falls deeper and deeper into chronic drug abuse.

When the book opens, Norman is relapsing once again, after the family has tried again to get him to quit. He hallucinates; he's paranoid; he manipulates his father and sister through guilt and love. His father, Rabbi Zweck, is an old man in his declining years still mourning the loss of his wife Sarah and his daughter Esther, although Esther is not dead. His other daughter, Bella, lives with him and Norman and helps take care of them both. She is deeply dysfunctional herself, a kind of overgrown child in ankle socks. As the story progresses and Norman is institutionalized, we learn what lays behind Norman's drug use, Bella's stunted growth and Esther's exile.

Much of the book takes place in the mental hospital where Norman is sent to try once again at recovery, and these scenes have about them the air of a bitter black comedy. Rather than recover here, Norman finds fellow patients to enable him and continues to manipulate Bella as well. Rabbi Zweck and his daughter visit him while Esther comes out from the shadows to try to help, too. It takes a family tragedy to bring the siblings around but even then the future is uncertain, with Norman taking comfort in a most unlikely quarter.

The Elected Member is a beautifully written novel about a deeply troubled family on the brink; it's not a feel-good novel and the ending isn't particularly happy but I found it nonetheless to be a very satisfying read. The characters were very well-drawn and convincing, and I like the way the secret at the core of the book unwinds itself slowly. The issues it raises haven't aged; it's just as relevant as ever and might make an interesting and off-beat book club pick for brave readers. But I think any reader of literary fiction should seriously consider adding it to his or her reading list.

Rating: BUY

I read this book for the 2011 Complete Booker Challenge.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


Laura said...

I'm glad you liked this book. I was really surprised by its impact. The goofy cover misled me, made me think it was going to be a light read. I couldn't have been more wrong!

bermudaonion said...

A book doesn't have to be all roses and sunshine for me to enjoy it. This sounds really good!

Zibilee said...

I have lately been reading a lot of books about mental illness, addiction, and afflictions of the mind, so of course, this one interests me. I do think that I will grab myself a copy, but I might do better to read it a little later on, as I am getting a little down after all this perusing of mental problems!

Janet Rudolph said...

Bernice Rubens was one of my favorite writers, and I was so pleased when she won the Booker Prize. A Five Year Sentence was one of my favorites. Thanks for reminding me about her. I think I may have missed a few books. The Elected Member was definitely good.

bookspersonally said...

This sounds like a lovely even if not uplifting story. I have not read anything by this author, and appreciate the introduction!

R. J. said...

I enjoyed reading your review but I will have to think more about this subject before devoting to it the amount of time I would spend reading the book. I tend to prefer other types of stories.

Anonymous said...

I MUST get this

Athira said...

This book sounds really good! Since most of my reading choices can be some kind of downers, this doesn't bother me. I will be reading this one.