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The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens [book review]

I’ve just finished reading The Elected Member  by Bernice Rubens; the second winner of the Booker Prize.

This is an author about whom I knew absolutely zero before I picked up the book. Then I discovered that she was born in Cardiff which is about 12 miles from my home. So a local in a sense and yet I hadn’t even heard of her. Oops.

Some quick searches on the Internet filled in some blanks however. The Guardian’s obituary  gives some fascinating insights into Bernice Rubens’ approach to writing and the themes at the heart of her work.

“I feel unclean if I don’t write,” she said once. “I don’t love writing. But I love having written.” What fascinated her was human relationships, particularly those within a family. She once remarked that, ‘I am concerned with the communication, or non-communication as is more often the case, between people and families’.

In Janet Watts’ obituary she said Bernice Rubens

… showed the horrors that can lie behind net curtains and cosiness, polite conversation or an unexplained wink.  

I didn’t detect any ‘horror’ in The Elected Member though Bernice Rubens certainly reveals the secrets behind the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family and the misery they endure when they see their beloved son/brother suffer the effects of drug addiction. But ‘horror’ would be over-stating it.

The Elected Member started with a lot of promise. The first scenes depict the son of the household, Norman, waking up after another tortuous night. He believed his room is invaded by silver fish. Even though it’s some weeks since I read the book I can still picture those shimmering things crawling their way from the skirting board.

I liked the way Bernice Rubens let her story unfold gradually,  peeling back the layers of the family to reveal some of the underlying problems and the answers to some mysteries (why does the daughter persist in wearing little white socks well into adulthood?).

But the ending was disappointing. It was just too neatly wrapped up in some cathartic coming together of the remaining family members united at the deathbed of the patriarch and (we are led to imagine); with Norman cleansed. Hmm…

And the verdict?  

Good in parts but not wonderful.

Footnote – added February 2017

I read The Elected Member – the winner of the Booker Prize in 1970 – as part of my Booker Prize Project in which I set out to read all the winners since the prize was initiated in 1969.

I completed the project in 2020. You can read my thoughts on the experience and discover which were my favourite Booker Prize winners and which were the 10 dullest and dreariest reads.

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