Skilful revelations

Anne Schuster

Foolish Delusions

(Jacana)

Foolish Delusions is one of the most inventive and unusual books I’ve read in ages. Defined on the title page as “a novel auto/biography”, it fully satisfies the expectations raised by the duality (as noun and adjective) of the word “novel”. Telling two stories in skilful juxtaposition, Anne Schuster also introduces tips and suggestions for aspirant writers, the value of which is often demonstrated in the double narrative of Foolish Delusions.

Central to the stories is the research of Capetonian Anna Bertrand who relates her own concern with present-day issues (‘I work as a researcher ­ gender issues, women’s rights, that sort of thing’). When her narrative opens she is investigating the legal rights of prostitutes and monitoring the case of a man accused of murdering a local sex worker.

Anna also becomes fascinated by the tragic history of her great-grandmother, Maria Jacobs Schultz, who was admitted to Valkenberg Asylum in 1893 and died there less than a year later. As Anna looks deeply and imaginatively into the events of Maria¹s life that culminated in her incarceration, she unfolds not only her ancestor¹s experience but that of late eighteenth-century women in general.

Much like the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), Maria’s life has been dominated by the needs and prejudices of men, first of her father and later of her husband. The drudgery of her existence, from the day her father makes her leave school at 13 to work in his shop, seems to have left little time for pleasure or joy.

Emblematic of male power is a bit player in Maria’s story, Dorothy Feather, who is sent to Valkenberg by her rapist father and ­ with the connivance of the doctors ­ is left to die there 53 years later. In the course of Foolish Delusions many other injustices and cruelties are touched on, some specifically and some more generally as Maria muses on the condition of women:

Shadows flicker on the wall behind the bed, like the shadows in the candlelight of my memory. The shadows of women who walked at night in fear. Shadows of children afraid of their fathers. Shadows of women working, always working. I see women like Ouma carrying heavy loads of washing, servant girls in cold houses, toiling from four in the morning till late at night ­ and still not enough money to buy a new pair of shoes.

Despite its numerous sad revelations Foolish Delusions is far from depressing and has many moments of humour and affirmation. It is an absorbing read and a fine, multi-faceted achievement.

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