The One Facing Us: A Novel

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9780805048803: The One Facing Us: A Novel

A richly colored narrative of a flamboyant Jewish-Egyptian family and its dispersal across three continents, from Israel's most original new novelist.

Esther, seventeen years old, wild and rebellious, is sent from Israel to Cameroon to stay with her hardheaded Uncle Sicourelle, who is charged with straightening her out. But Esther resists her uncle's plans for her future--which include marriage to a cousin--and in the privileged indolence of postcolonial Africa, she looks to the past instead. Using sepia portraits and scraps of letters, Esther pieces together the history of her family, a once-grand Egyptian-Jewish clan, and its displacement from Cairo in the 1950s to Israel, Africa, and New York.

As the worn photographs yield their secrets, Esther uncovers a rich tale of wives and ex-wives; revolving mistresses and crushing marriages; desperate intrigues and disappointments; poignant contrasts between the living past and the dead present. In sensuous, inventive prose, Matalon penetrates the mysteries of cultural exile and family life to produce a first novel that is mature, authentic, and finely polished.

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Review:

It's difficult to tell time in Israeli author Ronit Matalon's first novel translated into English, The One Facing Us; the narrator, Esther, slips as easily across eras as she does through the water of her Uncle Sicourelle's pool in Cameroon. Beginning with 17-year-old Esther's arrival in Central Africa to live with her uncle's family, and ending in Tel Aviv many years later, Matalon weaves a complicated saga of several generations in an Egyptian Jewish family. Though the novel begins in Cameroon, the story actually stretches back several decades to the years before Israel was declared an independent nation. Interlaced between chapters chronicling Esther's visit with her uncle, who hopes to marry her to his stepson, are the stories of her parents and grandparents: Her mother, Inés, and father, Robert; her grandfather Jacquo and grandmother Nona Fortuna; her uncles, aunts, and cousins--all members of a once-grand Jewish family in Cairo, now scattered to the four corners of the earth in the wake of political upheaval and personal tragedy.

Matalon marks her characters' passage through time with photographs: a snapshot of Uncle Sicourelle with his workers at the port of Douala; another of Sicourelle with his young stepson and Esther's father in Gabon in 1956; a picture of a 5-year-old Esther with her mother and grandmother. Some of the photographs are "missing"--all that's left is the caption Looking at a faded photo of her Uncle Sicourelle's wedding day, Esther remarks, "It is no longer possible to separate what the photographer saw from what time has done to the photograph. The future has wormed its way back into the past, tugging at the instant of the photograph's becoming." She might be describing her own efforts at family history. In The One Facing Us, Ronit Matalon has created a collage of memory, image, and narrative that is remarkable not only for the complexity of its vision but also for the lyricism of its prose and readers who enter Matalon's world won't want to leave one moment before they have to.

About the Author:

Ronit Matalon teaches literature in Tel Aviv, where she lives with her husband and children. A newspaper columnist and book reviewer, she has also written a highly acclaimed volume of short fiction. The One Facing Us is her first novel in English.

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Ronit Matalon
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