Howard Goldenberg, Carrots and Jaffas (Review)
Howard Goldenberg, we are told in “About the Author” at the back of his debut novel Carrots and Jaffas, is the sole practitioner of a literary genre – the rhyming medical referral letter! Wouldn’t I love to see some of those! Anyhow, you’ve probably guessed now that Goldenberg is a doctor, and you’d be right. But he’s a doctor with some very specific experience. Earlier this year I wrote about white writers writing on indigenous subjects. It resulted in quite a discussion. While the overall opinion was that there should be no taboos in subject matter for writers, we agreed that such writing is most effective when done from a standpoint of knowledge (and, it goes without saying, sensitivity). Howard Goldenberg, whose novel Carrots and Jaffas I’ve just completed, has such knowledge*, as he has and still does practise for part of his time in outback Aboriginal communities. Beats me how he could also find time to write a novel, but like all passionate writers, he has!
I hadn’t heard of Howard Goldenberg before, but apparently he was featured in one of the sessions at this year’s inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers festival, about which (the festival, not Goldenberg) Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Jenny (Seraglio) have posted on their blogs. Goldenberg writes on his blog of his session with Martin Flanagan. He says that Flanagan “led a conversation about the book, about my choice to turn from serious non-fiction to the novel, about stolen children – the ultimate wound, about twinness, about the problems and pitfalls of the whitefella writing about blackfellas.” Oh, wouldn’t I have loved to have been there!
This novel, Carrots and Jaffas, is pretty ambitious. It covers a lot of ground, asking us to make the right connections between different experiences of suffering and loss. It uses parallel stories and a frequently shifting narrative perspective to do this. It has the odd awkward moment – a coincidence pushed a little far, an irony that doesn’t quite ring true, an earnestness that gets in the way – but these are minor in a story that totally got me in from the first page. Goldenberg has written two works of non-fiction – a memoir about his father, My father’s compass, and a book of stories about his experiences as a doctor in outback Aboriginal communities, Raft. These non-fiction works have clearly honed his narrative skills.
The main action of the novel occurs around 2004, with the setting split between suburban Melbourne and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, in Adnyamathanha country. The plot starts with the abduction of 9 year-old Jaffas, one of identical twins, by an ex-drug addict, ex-con, who plans to deliver him to an old indigenous woman, Greta, who had two sons stolen from her in the 1960s. Clean now, but with a brain damaged by PCP, he (Jimmy aka Wilbur) sees himself as Golem or the Redeemer. He is going to right a wrong. He planned to take the two boys but it goes wrong and he ends up with just Jaffas, leaving behind a distraught Carrots. The story then flashes back to the story of how Carrots and Jaffas came to be, to the meeting and subsequent marriage of their parents, Bernard, an IT specialist who had lost his father when young, and Luisa, an immigrant from Buenes Aires who, we gradually learn, had suffered significant trauma and loss in her youth. Later, we meet Doc who works in the Flinders Ranges, but who has experienced a loss of his own, a sibling through divorce.
From here the story alternates between Carrots at home, and Jaffas in the outback in a neighbouring state. As Carrots starts to fall apart, Jaffas, who was threatened with the death of his twin if he tells, is introduced to indigenous culture. He is not happy, is biding his time for an opportunity to go home, but in the meantime, over a period of a couple of months, he starts to hear different stories about life – indigenous ones from Greta and scientific ones from Doc – and learns another way of living. I will leave the story at this point … except to say that there is drama alongside reflection. It’s quite a page turner, in its quiet way!
There is humour here, despite the serious subject matter. I particularly loved the chapter on the kindergarten fancy dress parade. It brought back such memories. Even in this lighthearted scene, though, there’s seriousness. One child is particularly diminutive, and Goldenberg writes:
No one in his class considered him abnormal. But already behind him, forever past, were the years of parity with his classmates. This would be his last year of unselfconsciousness, the last year before he entered the big school, where bigger kids would be free with unkind comparisons. Luisa gazed at him, concerned; she realised the child did not suffer from dwarfism – not yet.
Oh, the power of labels!
The characters are engaging, each clearly individualised – from Luisa’s bible-learnt English and understandable fearfulness to Greta’s confident, nurturing nature, from Bernard’s practical approach to life to the Doc’s passionate if somewhat eccentric one.
There are many losses explored in this novel – parents “lose” children, and children their parents, siblings lose siblings – and they are mostly needless, human-induced. Goldenberg examines what happens to the soul, the spirit, when it experiences such pain. Not everyone responds in the same way – some start to disintegrate, some go into problem-solving mode, others respond with increased generosity of spirit – but all suffer.
Carrots writes letters that he clearly can’t send to the abducted Jaffas. In one of them he writes “I am not me without you”. They are of course twins, but most people, Goldenberg shows, are irrevocably changed when they experience loss. For all this, the novel is redemptive. I’d love to know how indigenous people respond to the novel but, for me, it’s a novel written with love from the heart. I enjoyed it.
Carrots and Jaffas
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)
* Read, for example, his powerful, heartfelt blog post on the current Budget recommendations regarding co-payment for medical treatment.