Review: Five Selves

A handful of perceptive interior studies


By Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein
Holland House, £14.99

Some writers dwell on flesh and furnishings, others, like Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein, look deep into interior lives. Her Five Selves is a mindscape masterpiece - a handful of novellas in which the dramatis personae struggle to understand themselves in dark times.

An Israeli-born scholar of culture, religion and philosophy, Barasch-Rubinstein seems to perceive the soul through x-ray eyes - or perhaps, as the daughter of a renowned art historian, she was raised to look way beyond canvas and brush-strokes.

Her opening story, A Bird Flight, reads like a meditation on mourning, mapping the distress of a Haifa academic who flies to a Chicago conference arguably too fresh from her father's shiva. Here is a strong woman undone by the unfamiliarity of loss: "We didn't dare enter his study, so full of books - that which seemed so orphaned now." She delivers her paper through a fog of fatigue, her mind slipping disobligingly off track to the cemetery.

"The sentences seemed detached from each other, the grammar bizarre, unusual.

Her solicitous host tries empathy, talking of his own mother's death, but these efforts come across as crass, bewildering. This woman is in her own emotional shroud, ruminating on the loss of a man once so vital and full of light, and retreating into sweet memory that brings forth healing tears.

You cannot weep for The Grammar Teacher, a top-scoring pedagogue who cares more for test results than for the students who strive to achieve them. A Kafkaesque denouement sees her edged out by a younger, more personable replacement. Seeking solace with infinitely greater imagination than ever she brought to lessons, this stout grammarian takes to shoplifting, embracing misrule and thumbing her nose at good order.

Watch Dog probes an inconvenient phobia, as David seeks treatment for his irrational fear of dogs while Aura summons the chilling sense of being trapped in a helpless body: in his hospital bed, Gil despairs as former loved ones come and go, now little more to him than nuisance disturbers of his peace.

Earrings is this slender book's stand-out tale - a portrait of generational change exploring what breaks, and binds, the ties between a young woman from Tel Aviv, her loudmouth, sloppily dressed Sabra mum and a Viennese-born grandma whose high-heeled elegance and fancy-cake finesse bespeak the manners of old Europe.

Barasch-Rubinstein absolutely nails that youthful vexation of young people told how they ought to be and behave. Earrings is a little gem about the changing face of femininity, and the timeless treat of a gift from Grandma.

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