The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman. Published by Tafelberg, 2019.
Like many other South Africans I devoured Jennifer Friedman’s first memoir, Queen of the Free State with relish. So I was anticipating the sequel with enthusiasm, especially since the first title ended with Jennifer about to leave for boarding school in Cape Town, unhappy and furious with her parents for being sent away from her beloved Free State. In the epilogue she sums up the years at boarding school as ‘a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from’, and also packed away her dream of learning to fly, pushing it “far, deep into the furthest corner of my mind."
I had to wait to find answers to several questions as this second part of her life story took us back to her home town, where Jennifer reminisces on the excitement of circus acts, human and animal, in the big tent before she turns to the train journey to Cape Town and boarding school. With that incredible ability of hers to recall in such detail scenes, events, action, and most of all landscapes far and near – we read about life in the boarding house (and hope she is exaggerating, just a little, about the appalling food served up to the girls!)
Next she is back in her beloved home province, plus a fiancé, introducing Allan to her Uncle Leslie as her own parents have departed the Free State. The wedding is in Cape Town and the newly-weds settle in Johannesburg.
Not one but two family members – Jennifer’s great-uncle John followed shortly by her grandfather, die, and stories follow around the customs that precede and follow death, until the deceased are buried in the family cemetery on the Free State farm - and even that event descends into a fiasco... The stories of the exploits of these two men during their lives range from sentimental to uproarious.
In 1977 we find the family – Allan, Jen and little Adam in Haifa, about to return to Johannesburg where a baby girl Leah takes the family count to four and Allan’s mother seals her fate as an unwelcome visitor. But its her house that becomes their chosen home in Morningside when mama joins the exodus to Australia. They followed, but settled in Sydney where they were happy for three years until Allan is diagnosed with a cancerous ulcer in his mouth. Jennifer starts flying lessons, Allan’s gift to her, as his cancer spreads and they know their time together is limited. Her description of the pain-filled months ahead until his death just before his 49th birthday makes poignant reading, and so well illustrates her story-telling brilliance.
But there’s plenty of humour to offset the sadness, wherever she lives, even when she goes back for a visit to the Free State farm and joins her cousin Wilfrid for a trip up the mountain in a fearsome truck that ends on the summit, where she describes in brilliant detail, the view, the colours, the hills and sky, the distant farms that encompassed her childhood.
We are told in publicity releases that Jennifer lives in Australia where she flies herself all over that vast continent, sometimes just heading off to a dot on the map to a lunch date. So, there’s a lot more to tell her readers. The third title is no doubt in the making and will update us with laughter and sighs.