The Rowing Lesson

By ANNE LANDSMAN

On the surface, The Rowing Lesson tells the life story of Harold Klein, a Jewish physician who made his life and living in a Boer community in rural South Africa, now lying comatose on his deathbed. Beneath — as the metaphorical oars of his daughter Betsy’s thoughts dip in and stir the waters of his experience — is something much more complex. Over the course of several days’ vigil by his silent side, Betsy’s mind races across vignettes of family events that she’s reconstructed from his stories, her memory, and her imagination, gliding ever closer to understanding this irascible man she has come to adore. What results is a disarming and urgent soliloquy in second person that puts a fleshy intimacy on memory as it slips from excursions on the Touw River, where Harold’s sexual awakening began, to the ripples of such pivotal, historical events as Hitler’s rise to power and Kristallnacht, felt even by the Jews across the ocean. Feverishly strung together, all these scenes pull the reader across a river into the swirls of Betsy’s rage and eddies of Harold’s cold rationality by illuminating tender moments — “I beg you to teach me how to row. Your movements are slow and steady and I try as hard as I can to follow them. All the time your hand stays clamped on mine. Finally you let go of my hand and I start rowing by myself, just with the left oar. You have the right one?.The boat slips through the water sweetly and easily” — ultimately laying bare a bond that churns with life, even in the face of its demise. “I’m soaking your pillow and you’re spraying my face, my hair, my breasts. Death is fierce after all.”

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