Michael André Bernstein

  • Mortals by Norman Rush
    Cape, 715 pp, £18.99, July 2003, ISBN 0 224 03709 9

Norman Rush’s first novel, Mating (1991), is narrated by an unnamed 32-year-old female doctoral student in nutritional anthropology. It takes the cherished theme of a brilliant and independent woman’s search for a male partner worthy of her, and transplants it to a utopian matriarchal community in Botswana. For a man to recast Pride and Prejudice as a modern, feminist love affair, and then to set it in Africa, is a bold move, and neither the book’s reworking of the conventions of first-person narrative nor its relentlessly artificial language seem to owe anything to Rush’s immediate predecessors or contemporaries. The book’s singularity is still striking more than a decade after it was published, and though many of the narrator’s expressions seem wildly implausible (‘I had been working my tits down to nubs’), or idiosyncratic to the point of absurdity (‘so I’m being rather cum grano salis on these throwaway lines’), they are balanced by moments of power and wit. The narrator rejects vegetarianism, for example, not because she is against it in principle, but because, since the majority of vegetarians are female, she is ‘not prepared to concede animal protein to the striding-around master sex while I nibble leafage’. Some readers sympathise with the narrator while others find her appallingly self-absorbed and demanding, but no one has criticised Rush for his ventriloquism. I suspect this is not because he managed it so well, but because by situating most of the novel in Africa, where he lived and worked for six years, he was shielded by the authority of direct experience.

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