Walking to her neighbourhood tram stop in the Cape Town of 1944, 12-year-old Libka is always reminded of what her family hoped to escape by leaving Europe. The sign on the local tavern says, "No Dogs No Jews." Its virulent message often comes just moments after a habitual caution from Libka's older brother: "Avoid those coloureds. They're worse than the blacks." So goes life in a colonial city chock-full of diversity yet fraught equally with the intolerance of the times.
Lily Poritz Miller, a former senior editor at McClelland & Stewart raised in South Africa to the age of 15, makes it clear in her preface that this novel is drawn from her childhood in Cape Town with Lithuanian Jewish parents. We open with the family sitting shiva for Libka's dead father. Her grieving expressed by explosive anger, Libka barely tolerates the friends and neighbours streaming through the house. Even her mother, Sara, near-paralyzed with grief, has to endure fits of temper exhorting her to "start acting normal."
Though the Hoffman family has black servants and a large and handsome house, they live apart from respectable white enclaves, cheek-by-jowl with Africans and Malays, a failing that spurs ridicule from Libka's schoolmates. It's the taunts of "dirty Jew" that hit hardest. A defiant loner, Libka secludes herself at lunchtime and responds fiercely to insults, leading finally to a schoolyard tussle that brings about her suspension from classes.
Miller unfolds her story at measured pace, pulling us subtly and intimately into family conflicts shaped and backdropped by the city's simmering tensions of race and class. News from Europe is almost non-existent and ominously framed by rumours of concentration camps and mass killings. The one letter the Hoffmans received from Lithuania came four years ago: an uncle writing that Jews could no longer own businesses.
Sara takes in a lodger, an innocuous-seeming Afrikaner who turns out to be a foul-tempered anti-Semite. In a violent rage against Sara one day, he's restrained by a family servant, Maputo, who is then arrested moments later by attending white police, who buy easily into the lodger's smooth lie that Maputo was the attacker. The scene feels almost unbelievable - the bald racism and misogyny, the casual acceptance of only one man's evidence, the cowed acquiescence of Maputo, Sara and Libka - but the story's larger picture confirms its truth. We see a society sick to its core, in which moral absurdity is the norm and victims have been shorn of the will to fight.
As Libka enters adolescence, the rush of hormones one day makes her thrill helplessly to the glimmer in the eye of a family friend, the new head of her father's engineering firm. As she responds naively, half-fearfully to the lust in him, he manages to force a kiss on her in a secluded corner of the factory - triggering a disgust that makes her bolt from the building.
At home, she retreats to her bedroom, then attacks her inquiring mother, dashing her glasses to the floor. Miller captures flaring lust at the moment it shatters innocence. Libka's waves of confusion and self-censure become rage at her bewildered mother, while the spirals of shame and guilt remain unexorcised. Mother's glasses, snatched from her shocked face, distill the episode: The truths of desire will remain a blind spot for all concerned.
The novel's structure works invisibly. Unfolding chronologically with frequent flashbacks, the narrative's European backstory is weighted more toward the end of the book, seeming an afterthought - but there's a powerful purpose at work.
It's always best when a book sneaks up on you; when, held firmly by skilled storytelling, you enter the final chapters and feel things gathering to an essence you still can't identify, something hidden in the totality of what you've learned about these lives and all that you recognize in them. This book's closing pages are a wonder of sleight-of-hand synthesis and catharsis: on the surface conventional and familiar, yet in their depths tapping to the heart of our shared humanity. Lily Poritz Miller's debut is quietly extraordinary.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.