Flight of the dancer by Lisa Lazarus: a reader’s impression

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Title: Flight of the dancer
Author: Lisa Lazarus
Publisher: Staging Post
ISBN: 9781991220615

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer's own initiative.

Julia Glass is a teenager in 1970s Johannesburg, dealing with a mother from hell. Like all young protagonists, she has to make her way in the world, hoping to create a “life of significance” (93) for herself.

Can she follow the path of other fictional female protagonists in whom we track the moral and psychological growth of the central character – in the pattern of the famous Bildungsroman? But can there ever be a Johannesburg Bildungsroman, especially in the constraints of the ’70s and ’80s? What, if any, options for creative growth exist, especially for women? In a novel both subtle and compellingly readable, Lisa Lazarus explores these themes.

The narrative opens more or less in the present: Julia has a career, is married and has children. Her teenage daughter, however, wishes for a “Mommy who isn’t so sad”.

The novel then pivots into the past to tell the story behind this sadness. Dominating much of the story is Lillian Glass, the clever, charismatic but controlling mother. Lillian is determined that Julia should become a ballet dancer headed for the Royal Ballet School (a touch of imperial fantasy that Lillian, originally from Britain, can’t quite shake off). Julia is a talented dancer, but is tiring of the endless practices. One afternoon, she takes assertive action, locking herself in the toilet and refusing to go to ballet, precipitating months of icy treatment from her mother.

Lillian next decides that Julia is gaining too much weight and takes her to a doctor, who puts her on a near-starvation diet and a heavy regime of medication. Having previously been aware of her body as a talented instrument for dancing, she now comes to hate her flesh.

Much of the novel outlines family life, giving us portraits of the two brothers, Frank and Mark, and the gentle but emotionally constrained father, Lionel. Frank and Mark face military conscription, which they deal with as best they can. But they also start shaping their own choices: for Mark, evangelical Christianity; for Frank, radical academic scholarship at Wits. The mother admires Frank enormously and feels “he is coming into his own” (85). Julia wonders when it will be her turn to come into her own.

Julia herself goes to Wits and falls in love with the brilliant and emotionally reserved Steven, also headed for the army and then graduate study in Britain. The scheming mother leans on Steven to marry Julia, and the two set off for what turns out to be a disastrous starter marriage which soon unravels. Julia ultimately returns to Johannesburg in the early ’90s and establishes herself as a successful consultant. Her mother, however, is slowly dying, and the final sections of the book movingly narrate the anguish that Julia feels. After Lillian’s death, Julia discovers that she has been bequeathed all the family letters that her mother has assiduously collected over the years. This archive in turn becomes the basis of the novel itself, which incorporates many excerpts from the letters into its plot.


Literature and dance provide two other forms of inheritance for Julia, and these two media are skilfully woven into the novel. The admired elder brother, Frank, is a literature student and reads aloud chapters of Middlemarch to Julia. He reads one sentence which the teenage Julia doesn’t quite grasp: “‘To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it’” (83). The quote stands as an apt assessment of the book itself – Lazarus certainly discerns emotional truths in all of their shades.

There are other literary references: to French literature, in the novel The remains of the day, which Frank reads to his dying mother. This literary thread is contrasted throughout with dance, an embodied art form as opposed to the wordiness of literature. As a student, Julia takes contemporary dance, whose exponents, like Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham, provide pivotal points in the story. Caught in the ruins of her marriage in London, Julia goes to see a Martha Graham retrospective. One piece, “Lamentation”, features a single dancer on a bench “encased in a tube of purple jersey, with a spotlight on her face” (162). The dancer writhes in the tube as if trying to break free from intense pain. Julia weeps “until the house lights came on” (162).

This embodied capacity of dance is captured in another scene in which Steven and Julia attend a Crown Mines party. Julia dances her heart out, and as she stops, the partygoers applaud. Julia realises that she is the only person present who can use her body in this way: the rest are “boring students and academics” (112) invested in dry abstraction rather than embodied expression. As a literary exploration of such embodied expression, the novel draws literature and dance together, the two interacting and mirroring each other (indeed, mirrors feature as an important subtheme across the narrative).

Julia is heir to difficult inheritances from which she has to fashion a life. Yet, the path to this point is not self-evident or straightforward, and it is something she has to invent. The diasporic London life is not for her (as initially it isn’t, either, for Frank, who goes to study in Britain and finds it lonely).

The place where she finds a successful career and family is back in Johannesburg, making Flight of the dancer a type of Johannesburg Bildungsroman. Indeed, the book is richly rooted in the textures, sights and sounds of the city in the ’70s and ’80s. Whether it is bell-bottoms, Salusa 45, dwarves in Orange Grove gardens, Abdullah Ibrahim, student parties at Crown Mines, Bob Dylan, Beyers Naudé, MacGyver or The jewel in the crown, the book provides details which will trigger memories for anyone who experienced those years.

Lazarus is undoubtedly an extraordinarily talented writer. She is busy working on her second book. If you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of Flight of the dancer and watch out for the next release.

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