Ivory from Paradise

  • Review
August 31, 2011
Two ivory tusks rest on either side of the fire­place in the home of Hel­ga Divin, the dying matri­arch of the Jew­ish fam­i­ly at the cen­ter of David Schmahmann’s third nov­el. Helga’s chil­dren have come to Eng­land from Boston to be near their mother’s deathbed. In the next room, the children’s step­fa­ther, Arnold, an arro­gant indus­tri­al­ist, schemes to take own­er­ship of the rare tusks, along with oth­er African arti­facts col­lect­ed by the children’s late father dur­ing their child­hood in South Africa.

As the chil­dren for­mu­late a plan to pre­vent what they see as Arnold’s immoral claim to their family’s heir­looms, Ivory from Par­adise asks us to con­sid­er the true val­ue of not only the objects from our past, but that his­to­ry itself. In short, direct chap­ters and soar­ing prose, Schmah­mann paints a bril­liant­ly com­plex fam­i­ly, whose rela­tion­ships are as flawed as they are believ­able.

When the Divins trav­el back to their child­hood home in Dur­ban to resolve the dis­pute with Arnold over the ivories, South Africa itself holds up a dusty mir­ror for sel­f­re­flec­tion. This tur­bu­lent coun­try, strug­gling to reimag­ine itself in the wake of its belea­guered his­to­ry, forces the chil­dren to scru­ti­nize their own sto­ries of the past and, as for every South African, to rec­on­cile mem­o­ry with truth.

Discussion Questions