Every Home Needs a Balcony
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By Rina Frank (Trans: Ora Cummings)
Fourth Estate, £12.99
This somewhat cumbersome title provides a running theme for the narrator of this at times fascinating memoir. Born a sabra to Romanian immigrants, whose turbulent private life is hung out to dry just like their faded washing, Rina Frank (whom we assume is the person inhabiting the narrator's identity) graduates through various balconied apartments to marry into a Catalan Sephardi family "with a 50ft-long balcony stretching from the dining area to the red velvet reception room".
A balcony affords a two-way view: on to the interior life of the residents and an insider's view of the outside world. To the narrator, this offers an escape from the intermittently violent conflicts indoors, towards mesmerising wider horizons, 1950s Haifa being a reception point for Jews of every clime and culture, their lives and merchandise displayed along Stanton Street in the poor quarter of Wadi Salib.
What is strikingly illuminated is the downward social mobility of many of the refugees arriving into the new state of Israel. In Bucharest, Rina Frank's father had run a cinema, while her mother had worked as an accountant; in Haifa he sold cups of coffee and her mother was a school cleaner. Ironically, having doted on her gentle, soulful Sephardi father, and fought her shrewish "Ashkenazi snob" of a mother, Rina comes into her own professionally only when she finally quits emulating her elder sister's chosen career as an architect and succeeds in a bank. It is the moment when her husband tells her she has turned into her mother.
Like the third-person narrator, her husband has no name, and is variously referred to as "the/my man" or "the/my husband" (with whom sex is referred to as being like shopping, to be done twice a week). This distancing technique leaves the reader feeling remote at the points where the story becomes most personal while, by contrast, we are given every item on a dining menu.
Facts such as an early abortion, or a first experience of living together, are casually dropped, belatedly, into the narrative, without any sense of their impact. For a rite-of-passage memoir, it is odd to reach the end with a less clear idea of Rina Frank/the narrator's relationship with her men than of that with her God, in this deeply observant family.
Yet sexual jealousy has clearly been a driving force in her life. She overlooks her own affairs with married men, and the couples she has caused to break up, when physically attacking her husband's lover, not to mention two hapless drivers who happen to get in her way when she is in a jealous rage. It seems the passion of anger may have more of a hold over her than does romantic passion.
There is something guileless in Frank's frequent admission of bad behaviour, of stealing from her boss, or slapping the faces of women she finds annoying. Yet a British reader may not feel best served by the American translation. To the more familiar "Mom" and "movie house" can be added phrases that are simply odd: "a ticket scalper" or "the man's" seduction technique - "trumpeting into her ear in English".
Amanda Hopkinson is a writer and translator