Jacob Singer’s The Vase with the Many Coloured Marbles, set in South Africa, is a very emotional and rather disturbing book, yet I say this with great affection and respect. It deals with the realities of growing up in South Africa during apartheid, and the choices that people there were sometimes forced to make to succeed.
It is divided into two separate “books,” or stories. The first one deals with Emily, a “Coloured” girl, who decides to take opportunity of her fair coloring and jump the racial barrier. She reinvents herself as “Emma,” and does everything possible to fit in as a white woman. Although that seemingly makes her life easier, it also makes her perennially afraid of being discovered. That fear keeps her from forming a lasting relationship with a man, until she meets Eric, and in spite of the ever present fear of how her future children might look like, she gets pregnant. Without giving too much of the story away here, let me simply say that Marla, her daughter, looks completely white. She grows up and became a very vocal member of the anti-apartheid movement, and the matters escalate even further when her mother reveales the family history to her.
While it would be easy to judge some of the characters in this book harshly for their choices and decisions, the book brings to mind very similar stories I kept hearing in New Orleans, of the people who decided to “pass for white” simply because it ultimately meant better life for their children, and I kept being reminded of how bittersweet such decisions always turned out to be. As somebody who was brought up in a color-blind society of Central Europe, I find it so difficult to understand how anybody could discriminate against anybody else based solely on the basis of their skin color, and I was glad to see that Mr. Singer did not shy away from such painful and often very controversial issues.
I enjoyed the book a lot, but I found the writing somewhat basic and slow moving at times. As it is evident from the Acknowledgement section at the very end of the book, the author wove many personal memories and true personalities into this story, which might well be the reason for the narrative moving a bit sluggishly here and there. It must have been extraordinarily difficult to even deal with re-living of those events, yet alone deciding what to include and what to omit.
I would recommend The Vase with the Many Coloured Marbles to anybody who would like to try and understand the realities of apartheid in South Africa, and anybody who admires strong and resourceful female characters.
The Vase with the Many Coloured Marbles (Book 1, Emma and Book 2, Marla)
Outskirts Press (2011)