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Cape Town writer Lisa Lazarus doesn’t mince her words when explaining why she wrote The Book of Jacob—her joint memoir of a couple’s journey into parenthood.
”I wrote it because I was cross, in truth I was furious—the book really burst out of me,” she said at the recent launch of the book, which was co-written with her husband, UCT philosophy teacher Greg Fried. ”It was this feeling that sparked the book, like I’d been conned in some way.”
Everyone who has been through the joy and trauma of having a child will relate to Lisa’s sentiment, knowing that, with the exhilaration of the beloved precious bundle comes a great deal of hard work, deep feelings of failure and loss—and many sleepless nights.
Her husband has this to say: ”The Book of Jacob doesn’t look like the other books in the parenting section. The other books are in bright colours, red, orange, green, with cute infants and serene or laughing parents, books pleading to be adored. Our volume, with its haunting, silvery gleam, like a Victorian photo of a séance, mixes strangely with its companions. When we first saw its eerie grey-blue among the gaudy shelves of Exclusive Books, we realised that we’d broken into a new genre: the Gothic parenting memoir.”
He goes on: ”In fact, though, its appearance is entirely appropriate to the material. If you take pleasure in sudden screams in the night, the feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong, long and close confinement within a small space, unexpected denunciations from blood relatives, long brooding followed by spasms of rage, bursts of hysterical laughter, then our parenting memoir is for you.”
It is this kind of humour that pervades The Book of Jacob—a book which had me giggling—and occasionally shedding a tear—from the preface all the way through. With Greg’s often hilarious philosophical musings—reminiscent of the philosophical author Alain de Botton, I would suggest it has a place in the Humour section too.
The book tells the story of a young and very happily married couple who decide to have a baby.
”We had decided that we didn’t NOT want to have a baby,” declares Lisa. ”This is not a good reason, nor a clever one, to have a child.” But, she adds, that was, in fact, the only reason she had.
Her poor track record with kids didn’t help. She had been fired, in her twenties, from a job looking after children because, as the father bluntly put it: ”The kids don’t like you.”
Early on in the book, we are told how Lisa summons her husband to the bedroom where they have ‘baby sex’.
Against their expectations, she falls pregnant immediately and the couple—accustomed to a wonderful life together, are forced to hit the ground running. Despite the antenatal classes and the first aid courses for infants, they realise nothing has prepared them for a baby.
In honest, often hilariously funny or poignantly sad style, this couple provide ‘his’ and ‘her’ versions of their daily toils in raising a baby during that tumultuous first year.
Describing the first year of parenthood, Lisa says: ”It felt like a rickety row boat, lost at sea, heading into the distance … knowing only what I’ve left behind, and with a terrible longing for what that was.”
She describes the real anxiety of not being able to breast-feed properly, and the trauma of having a baby that won’t fall asleep or stop crying.
Greg describes, at one point, the relief of leaving their ‘grimy pad’ to hand baby Jacob over to his parents for his first sleep over.
He writes: ”At home, Lisa and I bumble about with Jacob, two village oafs trying to keep a hot potato in the air. We slump into the couches of my parents’ lounge. At last someone is going to take care of Jacob.”
The arrival of Jacob stripped Greg of views he previously cherished about himself: ” … a calm person, able to be cool and reasonable under stress. Over months it came to me, as a slow wave of revelation, that under stress I am a lunatic, totally unreasonable and quick to attack everyone nearby and then try to escape. I think, at some level I don’t usually think about, it’s been a blow to my sense of manliness.”
At one point, during one of their few conversations since childbirth, Greg asks anxiously about the baby: ”Do you think he’s advanced?”, to which Lisa replies: ”Not really.”
When Lisa’s friend Shani, the perfect mother, visits, she relates how once she had a child, her whole life made sense. ”It seems to be the point, doesn’t it,” she says, while breast-feeding contentedly.
At that stage, Lisa contemplates tranquillisers.
When the couple takes a short break in Paris, leaving Jacob with Greg’s parents, they find themselves in a restaurant enjoying hot chocolate and French onion soup. But they are talking about Jacob’s education.
Despite some of the hair-raising moments described in the book, Greg and Lisa are doing just fine. There’s even talk of a possible second child.
As Lisa puts it: ”Despite the very long, and very treacherous, journey in our boat we, the three of us—Greg, Jacob and I—eventually bumped up against land. We managed to pull our boat up to shore, get off and take a look at this new country where we found ourselves.
”It’s a vast place—this country, which is not really a country, but rather a new state of being, parenthood—and from the small part I’ve seen (because I’m still really exploring the edges of this foreign world) it’s a rich place—mountainous, with great peaks and troughs. There are many dangers but also many joys.”
The Book of Jacob is not only informative for prospective parents, it’s also entertaining the whole way through. Every book club should have a copy.
The Book of Jacob—A journey into parenthood by Lisa Lazarus and Greg Fried.
Publishers Oshun Books.