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The Elected Member

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Norman is the clever one of a close-knit Jewish family in the East End of London. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents' eyes... until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia.

For Norman, his committal to a mental hospital represents the ultimate act of betrayal. For Rbbi Zweck, Norman's father, his son's deterioration is a bitter reminder of his own guilt and failure. Only Bella, the unmarried sister, still in her childhood white ankle socks, can reach across the abyss of pain to bring father and son the elusive peace which they both desperately crave.

240 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1969

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About the author

Bernice Rubens

48 books51 followers
Bernice Rubens was born in Cardiff, Wales in July 1928. She began writing at the age of 35, when her children started nursery school. Her second novel, Madame Sousatzka (1962), was filmed by John Schlesinger filmed with Shirley MacLaine in the leading role in 1988. Her fourth novel, The Elected Member, won the 1970 Booker prize. She was shortlisted for the same prize again in 1978 for A Five Year Sentence. Her last novel, The Sergeants’ Tale, was published in 2003. She was an honorary vice-president of International PEN and served as a Booker judge in 1986. Bernice Rubens died in 2004 aged 76.

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5 stars
286 (21%)
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500 (37%)
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407 (30%)
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111 (8%)
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40 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 153 reviews
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
April 26, 2017
Another of my sporadic attempts to read as many historic Booker Prize winners as possible - this was the second one, and is an entertaining, sympathetic but rather dark study of a close-knit Jewish family struggling with a son's mental health issues and the conflicts between religious traditions and the modern world.
Profile Image for Albert.
368 reviews50 followers
January 16, 2022
As a child, Norman Zweck was a prodigy. He was fluent in twelve languages at which point he decided that was enough. His mother liked to show him off by having him speak in the various languages to her friends and acquaintances. Ultimately Norman decides to pursue the law as a profession and becomes a very successful barrister. When we meet him in the first few pages of this novel we learn that his career as a barrister is in ruins and he is experiencing drug-induced hallucinations. One sister, Bella, still lives at home and continues to dress as a young teenager, even though she is in her late 30’s. The other sister, Esther, has married outside the Jewish faith and is estranged from the family. Are Norman’s problems the cause or the result of the family’s disintegration?

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubins, her fourth novel, was awarded the Booker Prize in 1970. She was the first woman to win the Booker Prize. The Elected Member was the first I had read by her and prior to reading this novel, I had never heard of her. As I explored my options for reading The Elected Member, I was surprised that I could get neither a Kindle nor Audible edition. I was therefore even more surprised as I began reading to discover how engaging the story and characters were. I found myself ignoring chapters and just reading. While not an uplifting story, it is a revealing tale of how love and pain and hurt and guilt can coexist in a family.

This novel has its problems. Some of the time shifts felt stiff, the plot and characters feel dated at times and the various threads of the plot are wrapped up a bit too quickly and tidily to do justice to what had preceded it. Regardless, it is a mesmerizing story, and The Elected Member seems to go relatively unnoticed today. I plan to try something more from Bernice Rubens in the future.
Profile Image for Darryl.
403 reviews1 follower
January 31, 2011
This Booker Prize winning novel about a close-knit but dysfunctional Jewish family is set in the East End of London in the 1960s. Norman Zweck, the golden son of a rabbi and his late wife, whose promising career as a barrister has been derailed by drug use and mental illness brought on by his mother's incessant demands and his personal failings, is slowly becoming unhinged — again. He spends his days in his parents' old bedroom, locked away from his father and younger sister, popping amphetamine pills in a futile attempt to keep his demons at bay. His father and younger unmarried sister Bella, who deeply love Norman but fear his ever more worrisome outbursts, work together to place him in a mental institution, in a last ditch effort to get him back to his old self.

As he recuperates in the institution, the three members of the family, and Norman's estranged sister Esther, reflect on how they reached this critical point. Past actions, indiscretions, and tragic decisions haunt each of them, but none more than Norman. The Zuckers attempt to reconcile their differences once and for all, as Norman descends further into madness and as his father's health begins to fail.

The Elected Member was a enjoyable read, filled with humor despite its tragic elements, and hope in the face of despair and crisis.
Profile Image for Siv30.
2,340 reviews121 followers
March 6, 2019
"ואמרה, תודה לאל שחזרת. הוא היה זועף כל השבוע. כזאת עוגמת נפש היתה לי ממנו. היא היתה כמו אמי. תמיד היתה לה עוגמת נפש. ולא רק עוגמת נפש. תמיד היתה להן כזאת עוגמת נפש. אף פעם לא הרגזנו אותן. הן אף פעם לא חשבו שאנחנו עושים להן סתם עוגמת נפש. זה תמיד היה כזאת עוגמת נפש. עשינו להן את זה כשבאנו מאוחר מבית הספר, כשלא רחצנו ידיים לפני הארוחה, כששרוכי הנעליים שלנו היו לא רכוסים. במשך כל ילדותנו, נדמה שהדבר היחיד שעשינו לאמהות שלנו היה עוגמת נפש. פעם חשבתי שעוגמת נפש זה ביידיש.״"

בגיל 9 נורמן צווק היה ילד פלא שהצליח ללמוד הרבה שפות חדשות. אימו יהודיה מסורתית שרצתה רק את טובת משפחתה, התאהבה בתשומת הלב התקשורתית, סירבה לשחרר והכריחה אותו ואת אחיותיו במשך 3 שנים לשקר בדבר גילם האמיתי, עד כדי כך שרק בגיל 16 חגגו לנורמן את מסיבת בר המצווה. והמוזרות הזו של אימו לא היתה היחידה. היא שלטה במשפחה ביד רמה ובזרוע נטויה. נורמן שכל חייו עמל להביא נחת לאימו ולמשפחתו, נשבר שוב ושוב אל מזח המציאות, עד שבגיל 40 משהו מתפרק בו והוא מתמוטט נפשית.

עתה בגיל 40, לאחר שהקריירה המשפטית שלו מתרסקת בגאון, נורמן שחיי בחדרה של אימו שנפטרה, מכור לסמים ורואה דגיגונים כסופים מקיפים אותו. בכל מקום הוא רואה זוהמה והוא כמהה לשלווה שהוא לא מצליח להשיג. אביו ואחותו בלה, שתקועה נפשית אי שם בגיל 15, מנסים לטפל בו, אבל חוזרים ונכשלים עד שהוא מאושפז במחלקה סגורה לסובלים ממחלות נפש.

הספר קשה לקריאה. לא מצאתי בו הומור אלא תיאור שמוליד מועקה כבדה בלב הקורא.
משפחתו של נורמן, במיוחד אביו, מתקשים להשלים עם המציאות שבה הבן יקר לי והמוצלח קורס כך, והם שבים ומשכנעים את עצמם שתכף הוא משתחרר מבית החולים ומבריא.

נורמן, לעומת משפחתו, מסתגל למציאות החדשה שאליה נקלע, מוצא פתרונות חלופיים להשגת סמים ולמרות שבתחילה הוא רוצה לחזור הביתה אל המציאות המוכרת לו, עם הזמן הוא משלים עימה ועם חוסר התוחלת שבה.

הסופרת מתארת את מערכות היחסים בין בני המשפחה ואת הדינמיקה שהובילה אל ההתפרקות. האחות הצעירה והיפה, אסתר, נישאה לגוי מאהבה והיא מכלה את ימיה ואת אהבתה בחרטה וכאב על הנידוי שלה ממשפחתה ועזיבת הארוס שלה. האחות האמצעית, בלה, מסתובבת עם גרבים לבנים עד הברכיים ותקועה אי שם בגיל 15 בהערצה ואהבה לאחיה הבכור והגאון. היא מעולם לא נישאה. היא ממלאת את תפקידיה של האם החומלת ביחסיה עם נורמן. האב, גולה שנישא לאישה הראשונה שחייכה אליו עם רדתו מהאוניה, מכלה את ימיו בחרטה על שתיקתו ואי התערבותו במנהגה של אישתו ביחס לילדים ובמיוחד ביחס לנורמן חביב ליבו ולאסתר איתה נותקו היחסים למשך 20 שנים.

למרות שהאם נפטרה, רוחה שורה בכובד על הסיפור המשפחתי המורכב הזה וצילה לא נמוג.

הספר גרם לי לצער רב והתיאורים בו גרמו לי למועקה קשה למרות שהדבר מצביע על איכות הכתיבה המצויינת של הסופרת, אני מתקשה להמליץ על קריאתו בלב שלם.
1,592 reviews87 followers
December 1, 2019
This is one of the most sensitive, insightful, beautifully written novel of family pain I have read in a long time. Norm is a 40 year-old barrister, in the throes of a drug induced psychosis. As the oldest son of an immigrant family of Orthodox Jews, a child prodigy, he carried the weight of the family’s ambition and burdens. This is a tightly knit family whose love is born from equal parts selfish need and selfless concern, wraps so tightly around each child that it tragically stunts them. Rubens conveys the anguish, the guilt, the desperation of each character, the complicated dance between wanting to protect the broken family member and wanting to get help. Why have I never heard of this author before? I want to read everything she has written. 5 stars
Profile Image for Ade Bailey.
298 reviews171 followers
March 12, 2008
A beautifully crafted novel.

For those who love the writings and work of R.D. Laing who was a big influence on the author, this is a must read. The tragicomic exposing of the dynamics of family dystopia, the 'patient' elected to be the carrier of all ills, and the craziness of some aspects of the psychiatric system.

Profile Image for Douglas.
111 reviews146 followers
October 19, 2015
Some things I'm always out on. Brothers and sisters hooking up is one of them. Probably a decent read, but no thanks.
Profile Image for Kilian Metcalf.
982 reviews22 followers
August 16, 2014
This is the second book in my personal determination to read the Booker Prize winners in order.

Somebody has to carry the burdens of a family, right? In this novel, the person elected to that office is the brilliant son of the family, Norman Zweck. The weight of it combined with his addiction to amphetamines drives him mad. Haunted by guilt and the hallucinations of floods of silverfish surrounding him, he cracks under the weight and spends the bulk of the book in an insane asylum. Fortunately, as he sees it, he is able to locate a source for a continued supply of the drugs he needs to keep the bugs at bay. Meanwhile his family, father, strange sister who wears white ankle socks well into adulthood, and estranged sister who married outside the faith, attempt to cope with his illness and its impact on the family. His father, an immigrant rabbi with an erratic grasp of the English language, is the biggest sufferer. In spite of the grim situation at the heart of the story, this book is full of humor and memorable characters.

This is the second winner of the Man Booker Prize, and it was a much easier read than the first. Now I am on to reading Troubles by J G Farrell, winner of the 'lost' Booker Prize. Because of a change in the rules, the book was ineligible for consideration the year it was published, so the prize was awarded retroactively.
16 reviews2 followers
February 3, 2009
Unbelievable. This book is amazing on so many levels. The plot follows the demise of the Zweck family, an orthodox Jewish family living in London. Rubens does a fantastic job at painting a rich character sketch of each flawed, but lovable, member of the family. A must read.
198 reviews
February 3, 2012
The Elected Member was one of the first Bookers I read (the second book to win the prize, but I read a bit out of order in the beginning), and it was interesting to turn to it after some of the others. This is an almost entirely localized story. It hints at a larger history of immigration into England, but that really just serves to flesh out the history of the main cast. It follows a brief period of time in the life of Norman, the golden child of his Jewish immigrant family in England whose promise was cut short by bouts of what appears to be schizophrenia. The story is a merger of his family life and his experiences at a mental institution. It is a darkly humorous book, but one that does not pull punches. Rubens deftly uses her humor to lay bare the sadness of this life, made sadder because Norman could not see it himself. I enjoyed reading a Booker that was so very localized (though several more are to come). One thing this afforded Rubens was the opportunity to flesh out all her characters; she gave each one a chance to become multidimensional, even the ones that seemed at first likely to stand int he shadows as part of Norman's or his father's story.
Rubens' telling of the mental institution was extremely well done. She used humor to set up the stark realities of the diseases that created such colorful, fun, but ultimately ill characters. You waiver; you find yourself rooting for Norman and his cohorts in the hospital, but then Ruben draws you back in to see that same manic, exuberant scene through the eyes and hearts of family members. Ruben is unflinching and incredibly skillful.
Not, in the end, one of my favorite Bookers, but certainly a great one.
107 reviews3 followers
December 10, 2010
A haunting story about secrets, expectations, betrayal, family, loneliness, and madness. Beautifully, believably crafted.
Profile Image for Alex Rendall.
61 reviews4 followers
April 3, 2013
Norman Zweck sees silverfish everywhere he goes. This would be pretty alarming for anyone (on the odd occasion I see one of those creatures they make my skin crawl) but for Norman, a previously successful barrister and “the clever one” in his family, this has the effect of literally driving him mad.

The silverfish are a side-effect of Norman’s addiction to amphetamines, which have destroyed his career and are now destroying his mind. His father, the elderly Rabbi Zweck, and his sister Bella, decide that the only option for them is to commit him to a mental institution. Norman, however, feels that he has been made the scapegoat for the family’s emotional problems, which Rubens gradually reveals throughout the novel’s course. Most of these could arguably be attributed to Norman’s deceased mother, the smothering but cruel Sarah, who seems to ultimately be the cause of every family member’s present misery; her unwillingness to let her children live their own lives leads Norman to drug-taking and Bella to closet herself in a world of childish make-believe, so that she feels that she has never grown up; she still wears her girlish white lace socks, even though she is now in her forties.

We also see the devastating effect that the claustrophobic Zweck household has had on their youngest daughter Esther. The former golden girl of the family, wrapped up in her scriptural studies in the synagogue, her father casts her out when he discovers that she has eloped to marry a man who is not Jewish. Her need to run away was rash however, and she is now trapped in a household where she feels no love for her husband (the saintly sinner John, who knows their marriage will never be consummated but who loves his wife nonetheless). Desperate for her father’s forgiveness but afraid to see him for fear of what he will say, she sits at home alone and worries about what the rest of the family are doing.

Norman is the novel’s focus, and it is through his interactions with the other characters that we witness the flaws in their own lives. The fact that Norman’s problem is not as socially acceptable as that of the others is his reason for committal, but ultimately we get the impression that the entire family are just as bad as each other. Sarah’s love has suffocated the entire family, to the point that they are all mad in their own ways. Rubens’ portrayal of a family coping with a crisis is dark and poignant but is a masterful portrayal of human frailty and a similar message can be drawn from it as that famously made by Philip Larkin in one of his poems: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”.
560 reviews12 followers
June 18, 2015
This 1970 Booker Prize winner is a strange little novel, maybe you have to be Jewish to really engage with it. It tells the story of an immigrant Rabbi who comes to the East End of London, marries his first love and produces a dysfunctional family unit, in which all of its members are restricted and ultimately retarded by the rituals and expectations of Judaism. Norman, the "elected member"of the title is a child prodigy who speaks many languages and becomes a lawyer but is addicted to amphetamines, unsure about his sexuality and slowly descends into drug induced psychosis having physically and emotionally abused his sisters along the way. I found this a frustrating tale of thwarted aspirations with little redeeming features bereft fot the most part of Rubens black humour and quirky irreverance.
Profile Image for Uthpala Dassanayake.
164 reviews7 followers
December 2, 2014
The Elected Member is a short and powerful novel. The reader is taken through the depressing and exasperating experience of a Drug addict and his close family members. For an outsider, the behavior of the drug addict and his family may appear as ridiculous, but the author has presented the situation so masterfully, that the reader feels how normal their behavior is once you are in their shoes. Revealing the past incidents which contributed to the situation from time to time, the whole story is nicely fabricated. The book leads us to think how much of a person is really him and how much of him is the person chosen for him by others. In closely knit families and societies, a great deal is chosen for you, and under various circumstances, others have elected you to be you.
This is my first Bernice Rubens and I loved it.
Profile Image for Kenneth.
437 reviews6 followers
January 29, 2016
Perhaps one of the most beautifully written, thematically profound novels I've ever read.

It addresses so much, from insanity to faith to family pain and betrayal. The language is majestic, with phrases like "they were clad in black and bureaucracy," and "she [a Jewish person] called her ring pogrom money, because it was portable currency." There are even hints of so much more, from a possible gay love story, to the ever-present--yet never referenced--effects of the Holocaust on this Jewish family.

Tremendous! Not 5 stars--10!
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
April 16, 2009
This was an interesting story about a man struggling with mental issues and his family, a Jewish family not quite integrated into American culture. The father speaks with a Yoda-like speech pattern and feels guilty about everything, and there are a lot of conflicts between tradition and trying to make people happy.

Next time I see a silverfish, I might start to worry.
Profile Image for Realini.
3,327 reviews76 followers
April 1, 2021
The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens
10 out of 10


Bernice Rubens is the first woman to win the Booker Prize, in 1970, for The Elected Member, which is a remarkable novel, albeit it only has a Wikipedia page with about thirty words – while at the same time, let us say a book by Dan Brown is probably getting thousands of words, multiple chapters and undeserved popularity, if compared with works that are more rewarding, in the long run – although this is a complex, psychological, sad, insightful, challenging, memorable, intriguing narrative which has some dark, morbid humor – let us just mention the case of Mrs. Cass, who would not die for five years, and every morning her son-in-law, Mr. Steinberg, brings her tea hoping she is no longer there to have it...she laments that the tea is brought late, and what is she to do...Die, thinks Mr. Steinberg and so does his wife

When the old woman eventually dies, her daughter and her husband remove what was takeable from room where Mrs. Cass died and then the daughter informs her brother, Bertie of the death – when the son had visited in the past, he had always found something to take, steal, indeed, he would only visit if there was something material to appropriate, or to ask for loans and money...Bertie comes in, goes to the room of the departed and he walks immediately out, making the family scared that something is wrong and when they check the room of the deceased, they see that she no longer has the ring on the fourth finger, which was all the inheritance there would be, all the compensation for the expense, the fatigue of the ten years the mother had stayed with them, five of which she had been relegated to the bed…
Norman Zweck is hired to plead the case, although the Jewish community, his father, rabbi Abraham Zweck, are all appalled at the idea that instead of settling this in the traditional way, a scandal is caused and a family dispute is allowed to go to court, where they would decide on the case of the ring and the accusation of theft…much is expected on Norman, who had been a prodigy -by the age of six, he spoke French, at seven he was fluent in Polish, French, English, Yiddish and Hebrew and though he had initially struggled with German, at nine he will have mastered it…journalists came to see the one who had become a household name, adding Italian, Spanish, Russian while his mother maintained he is still nine, just to amplify what was already a marvelous feat…the father argued against it…

Nonetheless, Sarah Zweck insisted on keeping the age of her son at the same level and thus she had to do the same for Bella, his sister – there was also Edith, who would be involved in a conflict with her family – and she decided to have the bar mitzvah later than the age require, given that she kept saying Norman is nine, when he was in fact twelve, and mother insists on Bella wearing white socks, inappropriate for the age she really had, to maintain the same front lie, and later on, a woman that is already near forty, and destined to be a spinster for her whole life almost surely, would still wear the symbols of a tender age – there is a question for this reader at some point, where he is not sure if there has been some incestuous closeness between this sister and her brother – the attitude of the mother will have had an impact on the major issues that Norman would have at about forty, when he becomes an addict…

Norman Zweck is an addict that has started with a pill – which is presumably what happens to all addicts, probably it applies to alcoholics too, from one glass, to bottles – and he now has to spend a lot – anyway, more than he has – on methamphetamines and for that he steals money from the till – the father had been and still is a rabbi, but he has to also work in the small shop the family has, together with Bella and the assistant they have – to buy his drugs, which make him hallucinate and see silver fish and dirt everywhere – he keeps saying that what he sees is true and the others are crazy, albeit he sometimes doubts his sanity and experiences some remorse…perhaps especially when his father is ill…
They have an aunt, auntie Sadie, the sister of the late Sarah Zweck, who is called to help with his care – she is a qualified nurse, but she is resented for the fact that she moves from one sickness to another, from one dead person to the next – as in the next to spend his last days on earth – and though she is efficient, Norman – and surely others – resent her presence and when he calls home and finds she is there – he is in an institution by now – he is abhorred to have her answer the phone – he had not expected anyone to answer the call, all things being normal, father and sister would not be at home, but in the shop or busy somewhere – and when he talks to his father, he calls Sadie the cow…what is that cow doing there…

Because Norman is uncontrollable, especially when he has a breakdown, the doctor they call cannot help, for he gives them a tranquilizer they are supposed to put in his tea, only the very suspicious, borderline paranoid addict does not trust them, tastes the strange tea and insists on father, then sister having the drink prepared for him – trying to prove there is nothing outré, father has too much and falls asleep with Bella, in what is a an amusing-sad passage…there are plenty of them, spiced with Jewish vocabulary…’ganuf, meshuggana all of them, oi veh meshuggoyim…Esther shaved HER head on marrying and then ritual wig ...that is a mat Rabbi thinks…
As we advance in the narrative, we find more about the conflicts, traumas and breakdowns in the family, with what really happened when Esther left the household to marry the goyim John…she had had a connection with a Jewish boy, David, when all over the sudden, one rainy night, as she was absent, Bella goes to Edith’s room where a letter is on the bed…as they read it, they find that the girl had married John, the only non-Jewish friend they had, about a month ago…in reality, they had not married and the author of the letter was…Norman

What had happened is quite extraordinary – though it necessitates some sort of spoiler alert, I guess – for quite a few years back, Esther had started a relationship with the librarian John, who was in love with her, but too aware that given he was a goyim, there would be little, if any chance of their affair been in any way successful, or long term…unwilling to hurt the family, Esther starts to see David and intends to marry him, but her brother comes in, says this is not to be because David is actually gay – Norman, presumably being himself in love with David had willed himself into believing what he told his sister – and she has to give their parents a letter that Norman would actually write and run away with John…when David gest the news, through his own letter, he commits suicide, caused by the plan of the man who starts using drugs when he finds the man he loves dead…
Profile Image for John.
1,148 reviews85 followers
December 23, 2019
A story about mental health and a dysfunctional Jewish family. Norman the apple of his father’s eye was a child prodigy and genius. However, Sarah his mother kept the apron strings tight with guilt and Norman to fearful and guilt ridden to leave home. His sisters, Bella forever in white socks and Esther the spoilt pretty younger sister estranged from the family.

Norman after the death of his friend David develops a drug habit with hallucinations of silverfish everywhere. His family have him committed to an asylum. His father a Rabbi suffers guilt about being unable to help or cure his son. The story looks back at the past and incidents in the family history which could have contributed to Norman’s condition.

Through the course of the novel the hidden secrets which contributed to Normans breakdown are revealed. There are some real doozies! Rubens captures Norman’s paranoia well with his addiction to amphetamines. The novel also is humorous in parts with wry humor. Well worth a read.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
247 reviews
July 26, 2015
The Elected Member was purchased by me after reading another review on goodreads. I had never heard of the author or the book before. It won the Booker Prize in 1970. I could not find it on amazon so brought the paperback version.

It is one of the best books books I have read this year. It is sad, tragic, and often hilarious Jewish family story set in London in the late 1960s. Norman the son is going mad and it's his family reactions and recollections where the story came alive. What Norman thinks and what his family recalls is often vastly different. Norman has made some weak, selfish decisions that have caused him to become a drug addict to numb the pain from the chaos he himself caused and his family has exasperated and he has a problem..... he sees silverfish which causes his father to have him committed to a mental institution.

Norman's father, his sisters Bella and Esther all have had havoc thrust upon them due to Norman and their long dead mother. The choices they made are not always honourable or in the best interests of the family but themselves and continuing to live together as a unit but operating singularly is untenable . To live with these choices is what produces guilt, regret and yes madness. Taking accountability is not a strength for anyone and avoidance appears to be a constant goal and ties them together.


Great book. Highly recommend reading.


Profile Image for Lisa.
3,314 reviews417 followers
September 5, 2014
The Elected Member was the second winner of the 1970 Booker Prize, after Something to Answer For by P.H.Newby in 1969. Bernice Rubens (1928-2004) was born in Wales and began writing in her middle thirties when the kids went to school. She was shortlisted again in 1978 for A Five Year Sentence, and her winning book was shortlisted with some august company...

To read the rest of my review visit http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/200...

September 24, 2020
This book made me sad. And I’m glad I read it.

Having picked this up as the second of my Booker Prize winners, I was reeling from my disappointment with the first winner, and over the first couple chapters just enjoyed the clear writing, linear story, and understandable characters. However, as the story wove on, my enjoyment developed into investment. The simplicity of the prose became a tool to unveil a significant amount of insight, filling me with me empathy almost unconsciously.

The story tells of a fragmented Jewish family trying to retain their sense of kinship in a secular world. Focusing particularly on a Jewish Rabbi and his drug-addicted wunderkind son, the author has used the incarceration of the son in a mental hospital as an avenue to play with chronology, fantasy, psychosis, religion, conservatism, and the mundanity of family life. And then occasionally she throws in a startling anecdote in the same simple direct prose, leaving the reader reeling. I had many ‘did I just read that??’ moments.

As someone who has lived with a family member who spent chunks of time in a mental home, I was moved by the insight that the author shows into the isolated frustration of the drug-addicted son wondering why other people can’t see what he can see, and don’t believe him; the family unable to ask for help from the community and unable to help their son get better; and the reality of the mental home and the inmates themselves. This reality was my reality, and the fact that it was derived in such a matter of fact way gave it great currency.

In the end, this is not an edifying story. None of the characters really gain redemption, and you feel by the end that they are broken and unable to be fixed. But I would still recommend it. Read it knowing that people are broken, situations can’t be fixed, reality is hard, families are complex, and none of us are alone in pain. But in that shared humanity comes insight and, thanks to this book, empathy.
214 reviews
April 7, 2023
A promising young lawyer whose family had high hopes for him becomes addicted to drugs.
Interesting dynamic between father and son.
Profile Image for Joe.
18 reviews
January 20, 2016
This is a depressing story of a pretty messed up family, but the writing is so good that it is easy to read past what is actually happening and enjoy crawling through the wreckage.
Norman Zweck is messed up. He was a brilliant lawyer but now he is locked up in the family home where he sees silverfish everywhere. The book starts as his father and sister decide he needs to be committed. And so we get to know the family, including the other, estranged sister and the dead mother.
You will end up being thankful for your own family. And if you don’t you should probably write your own book.
What makes the book readable is the writing. Running through the book are little gems, like describing the men coming to take Norman away as being dressed ‘in black and bureaucracy’ and the unsettling description of a bed recently vacated by a fellow patient as ‘the whole bed looked discharged from service’.
The book may not make you care what happens to the people in it, but you do want to see what happens in the book.
Profile Image for Val.
2,425 reviews77 followers
March 6, 2018
1970

Formerly high-flying lawyer, Norman Zweck, now hides in his bedroom hallucinating silverfish, while his father and sister worry about him.
I think it was an inspired decision by the author to make Norman's mental breakdown / illness the result of amphetamine addiction. Although we have sympathy for Norman as he experiences the horrors his mind produces, we have even more sympathy for his family who have to deal with the effects (although not for the dead mother, who does not seem to have been a positive influence).
There were better written books on the 1970 shortlist and more enjoyable ones, but Bernice Rubens is tackling the serious issue of mental health and writing a compulsive family drama. This is not a cheerful story and the book could have become dreary, but is lifted a little by the return of the long estranged younger daughter.
Profile Image for Beth (bibliobeth).
1,926 reviews53 followers
Read
July 23, 2011
I can see why this was a booker prize winner I really enjoyed it! So strange with the hallucinations of silverfish, and very sad towards the end.
1 review
August 2, 2013
This book is a revelation. Heart warming.
A must read.
Profile Image for Trounin.
1,779 reviews36 followers
August 27, 2021
Сперва ребёнок, подающий надежды, потом подросток, добивающийся осуществления цели, затем успешный выпускник и профессионал своего дела, зарабатывающий достаточное количество средств для существования. На таких людей всегда указывают, когда желают привести пример, которому должны следовать дети, подростки и взрослые. Однако, не всегда пример оказывается удачным, поскольку порою случается не совсем то, чего от подобных членов общества ожидают. В жизни всякое случается! Человек может совершить преступление, отчего на его достижениях можно поставить крест, если он будет осужден на заключение в тюрьму. Человек может эмоционально выгореть, занявшись другим делом, и хорошо, если не таким, за какое заслужит порицание. Чья-то жизнь просто идёт под откос, потому как в какой-то момент наступает разлад. Но хуже всего, если показательный пример в итоге приобретает зависимость, какой бы она не являлась, лишь бы не наркоманией. Потому как в данном случае всё становится совсем печальным… как и в произведении Бернис Рубенс.

(c) Trounin
Profile Image for Adam.
112 reviews7 followers
December 15, 2019
A sexually-repressed intellectual manipulates his family and friends, with dire consequences. He lays the blame for all his woes on others: his Jewish mother was too overbearing; his Rabbi father, too fond; his then-teenage sister, too willing. Yet he considers himself the victim, the family's scapegoat or "elected member". In his self-pity, he is driven to addiction and insanity, which manifests itself in hallucinations of insects, breaking his father's heart. Ultimately, he finds both his comeuppance and solace in a mental hospital.

Religion, incest, addiction, perversion, madness and death all rear their heads in this family tragedy.

Bernice Rubens takes us through all the emotions – and she even made me cry, though not for Norman's fate – but ultimately I settled on callousness: Norman deserved his life with the silverfish.
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