Book review: The Trouble With My Aunt by Hedi Lampert
Publisher: Porcupine Press
Retail price: R290
Publication date: February 2020
Purchasing details: End of this article
Hedi Lampert’s charming, funny and elegiac novel, The Trouble With My Aunt is one of the featured books at The Jewish Literary Festival, Cape Town, March 15, 2020. The one day event is packed with talks by around 70 writers. Lunch is included in the entrance ticket. Lampert will be involved in two sessions at the festival. Details of the festival and Lampert’s talks, at end of this article.
BREAKING NEWS ALERT: The Jewish Literary Festival 2020 has been postponed – because of the coronavirus. The organisers will be in touch with ticket holders.
The background behind The Trouble With My Aunt
Lampert’s book was inspired by her aunt who was born with Fragile X syndrome- caused by an inherited genetic mutation which results in cognitive impairment, learning disabilities and autism.
Lampert grew up with her much loved aunt who was cared for by Lampert’s grandmother -and subsequently Lampert’s late mother.
When Lampert’s mother passed away, her aunt became Lampert’s ward. Although Lampert’s aunt lives in a home for seniors in Johannesburg, Lampert remains very much involved; making sure that there is money for aunt’s perms; hair and nails. Her aunt’s preoccupation with looking nice and dressing smart is one of the delightful leitmotifs of the novel. In the book, the character Vi prattles on to everyone about her latest perm.
Although Lampert’s aunt was considered as “retarded” by many, her mother [Lampert’s gran] was determined to teach her to present as “normal” and beyond that to be proud of herself as an individual. Lampert’s aunt was born in 1933. That was a time when people with intellectual disabilities tended to be either shafted into institutions/asylums or hidden at home; in shame.
Lampert’s grandfather stipulated in his will that Lampert’s aunt should never be institutionalised. It was only after Lampert’s mom’s death that her aunt went into a Jewish home for seniors. She is 87 and is very happy there. She has friends, activities and has her perm and everything she needs.
In the 1930s, Fragile X had not been ‘named’ and isolated as a genetic mutation. That only came in 1991. Lampert grew up, within the ambit of a Jewish family in Johannesburg which was devoted to her aunt. At the same time there were refrains of blame and shame: Her aunt was her gran’s “cross to bear”. What exactly did that mean and what was ‘wrong’ with her?
The Trouble With My Aunt is not a memoir
Real life events sparked the book but it is a novel. It is not a memoir. Lampert has fictionalised personal history. She has drawn extensively from stompies [bits and pieces]; whisperings; mutterings, family fables – what she was told or overheard.
The gestation of the book took over 15 years in which Lampert pondered and pulled her ideas, images and characters around, shaping the narrative.
At the heart of the book is a 30 something Leah. A hook-up results in an unplanned pregnancy. She needs to consider the genetic implications of the baby she is carrying. Leah is not Lampert. In real life, Lampert was made aware of Fragile X, before she had children. Undergoing genetic testing she found out that she was not a carrier and there was no possibility of passing on the syndrome.
In the book, Leah has to sleuth her way to find out about the “trouble with her aunt” and what that means beyond family mythology and bobba meise [Yiddish for old wives tales- nonsense – urban lore]. Families keep secrets and her family built up vault of mysteries and riddles. If only they would have known that it was/is a genetic condition – things may have been very different. However, sometimes, people prefer to live with their own fabrications of reality.
I am being cryptic as I don’t want to plot spoil Leah’s voyage of discovery about Fragile X and her family. Part of the joy of reading the book is going along with Leah as she goes on a medical and personal journey to unearth ‘the trouble with her aunt’.
Lampert has put extensive research into Fragile X and that information is woven into the narrative and conveyed in Plain English – sans medical gobbledegook.
Reading the book, I went “ping” as I recognised the condition in the offspring of people I know or people I have encountered. Many people with Fragile X are high functioning . Tney can read and write and have jobs. With early intervention, those on the high end of the spectrum in terms of intellectual ability, can and do lead fulfilling lives.
Evoking Jewish Johannesburg in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s
Leah’s journey is framed against growing up in the ambit of a tightly knit family clique in Jewish Johannesburg. Lampert and I grew up in the same area. She was a tad older and we didn’t really intersect but our mothers knew each other. We knew each by sight. I don’t recall seeing her aunt when I was growing up.
Lampert conjures up Jewish Northern Suburbs Joburg with deep tenderness and whimsy. She writes about the food and preparing for Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year]. Jasmine flowers began sprouting around that time. The aphorism went that if you hadn’t started studying by the time the Jasmine was in bloom, it was too late to even think about hitting the books. I can smell the fragrance of Jasmine in the air, after the afternoon rains in Joburg. I recall picking the Jasmine sprigs to decorate the Rosh Hashanah table. I loved Lampert’s reference to Sylvia’s Pass [a rocky ridge in Linksfield, Joburg] and the argot as Sylvia’s Arse.
Dangling in the evocative image of Jasmine and Jewish mirth is the spectre of a childhood of privilege in Apartheid Johannesburg. Lampert doesn’t shy away from evoking situations which make one wince. They were part of the milieu. The nostalgia is tinged with a bitter sweet reflecting back on the past as a country which is very different from where we are now.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Trouble With My Aunt. Lampert has tagged it as ‘women’s fiction’ but I would say it is family fiction. It is a story which gives a much needed nod to the intellectually challenged and their care givers. It is all very well to chant that we must embrace difference and neuro-diversity in society. However, it is beyond challenging to look after a person with intellectual and or physical challenges. In South Africa we are under resourced. Most can’t afford genetic testing and therapies, let alone special schools and residential care – if it is available.
The mantra is to keep individuals “at home” but what if “home” means loneliness, lack of stimulation and just existing? This is an uncomfortable topic and I think that Lampert deftly pulls back the curtain and invites us to gaze deep into choices that are made. People do the best that they can do. I think that the message that comes out clearly is that knowledge empowers us. This book casts a light on a syndrome which has been shrouded in mystery. It is the largest inherited genetic disorder and yet many people don’t know anything about it.
The Trouble With My Aunt is a book with heart. It is also informative. Deceptively an “easy read”, it is packed with much to ponder. Many people might want to consider putting Fragile X onto the list of genetic testing, before embarking on a pregnancy.
Image credit: Hedi Lampert and her book, The Trouble With My Aunt. Pic Supplied.
Book advisory: The Trouble With My Aunt- details
Writer: Hedi Lampert
Publisher: Porcupine Press
Book distributor: Porcupine Press
Retail price: R290
Purchasing the book: From Amazon and should be available in major book stores. If you cannot locate the book or live out of South Africa, email Hedi Lampert: email@example.com.
The Trouble With My Aunt at the Jewish Literary Festival 2020
The Trouble With My Aunt will be on sale at the Jewish Literary Festival on March 15, 2020. Lampert will partake in two sessions: Bringing fictional characters to life – a panel discussion as well as a conversation with Ilana Gerschlowitz, co-author of Saving my sons: A journey with Autism.
Check Lamperts Facebook page for book events.
Jewish Literary Festival, Cape Town: book/travel advisory -2020 festival and beyond
✔ Date: March 15, 2020
✔ Time: One day only 9am-5pm.
✔ Festival venue: Gardens Community Centre, Cape Town. The precinct includes the Jacob Gitlin Library, SA Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre
✔ Tickets: Adult – R380 + R5 booking fee – includes admission, lunch and tea/coffee voucher; scholar/student 12-21 years – R115 + R5 booking fee- includes admission, lunch, 1x tea/coffee voucher.
✔ Booking: https://www.quicket.co.za/ or call The Gitlin Library on 021 462 5088
✔ Number of writers at the festival: About 70
✔ Writers include: Award winning UK author Thomas Harding; Joanne Fedler, Alan Landau (Australia), Jonny Steinberg, Tamar Hodes, Joanne Jowell, Steven ‘Boykey’ Sidley, Jonathan Ancer, Hedi Lampert, Marilyn Martin, Albie Sachs, Dennis Davis, Diane Awerbuck, Anastacia Thomson, Alex Latimer, Tanya Farber, Terry Kurgan, Barry Cohen, Gail Schimmel. Interviewers include: Pippa Hudson, Nancy Richards, Lisa Chait, John Maytham and Helen Moffet.
✔ Number of events: 46
✔ Children’s programme: Fully supervised- ages 4-11 years old, at the Gardens Commercial High, in partnership with the PJ Library and in collaboration with Herzlia, Middle and High School pupils.
✔ Parking: Free in The Jewish Museum parking lot and street parking
2022 Jewish Literary Festival
✔ Biannual event: Next festival is scheduled hopefully 2022- between March and June
✔ Website: http://www.jewishliteraryfestival.co.za/
✔ Who can apply to be featured: You don’t have to be Jewish. Your book may trace a theme which intersects with being Jewish; a Jewish character or theme; idea; community.
✔ Want to participate as an author or donate: firstname.lastname@example.org