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Barbara Trapido Biography

Barbara Trapido comments:

Nationality: British (emigrated from South Africa, 1963; granted British citizenship, 1968). Born: Barbara Schuddeboom, Capetown, South Africa, 1941. Education: University of Natal, South Africa, B.A. 1963; University of London, diploma in education, 1967. Career: English teacher, Greenwich Park School, London, 1964-67, and Sunderland College of Further Education, 1967-70. Since 1970, full-time writer. Awards: Whitbread Special prize for fiction, 1982, for Brother of the More Famous Jack. Agent: Felicity Bryan, 2A North Prade, Oxford OX2 6PE, England.



Brother of the More Famous Jack. London, Gollancz, and New York, Viking, 1982.

Noah's Ark. London, Gollancz, 1984; and New York, Watts, 1985.

Temples of Delight. London, Michael Joseph, 1990; New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

Juggling. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1994; New York, Penguin, 1995.

The Travelling Hornplayer. London, H. Hamilton, 1998; New York, Viking, 1999.


Funny/warm/satirical/slightly highbrow but accessible.

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Barbara Trapido was born in South Africa in 1941, the daughter of dissident academic parents. She emigrated to England in 1963 and has lived in Oxford since 1971. Her first novel won a special prize in the Whitbread Awards in 1982 and was widely praised.

All Trapido's novels feature a dominating, unconventional older man. In the first three books he causes the heroine to fall in love with him or with the freedom from convention he represents; in the last he has something like the opposite effect. In Brother of the More Famous Jack, Katherine's friendship with her urbane philosophy teacher, Jacob Goldman, and his family gives her, living in suburban rectitude with her mother "at the far reaches of the Northern line," an entre into a world in which passions are visibly displayed and strong views are essential. Katherine falls in love with a series of unsuitable men, but the uxorious Jacob is the real hero of the novel. A shaggy Jew from the East End, he is sexy, uninhibited, and refreshingly trenchant; when Katherine eventually finds a man worthy of her, it is with the most Jacob-like of his sons.

The eponymous Noah Glazer, in Noah's Ark, is an American. He is as uxorious and bossy and cocksure as Jacob but with a different accent and somewhat less charm. Effortlessly, he rescues vague Ali from a dreary existence as a single parent still under the thumb of her awful ex and marries her. But such dazzling rescues bring their own problems. Compliant Ali has never gotten over her first love. As she slowly comes to terms with him, with the country of her birth, South Africa, and also her talent for painting, her marriage almost founders. Noah, like Jacob, isn't a man to relish coming second. Ali is ultimately forgiven, though Noah has been softened by an inconvenient summer spent apart from her. Forgiveness, like marital happiness, is fragile.

By the third novel we know that the typical Trapido heroine is young, demure, clever, and ripe to be rescued by someone vivid and powerful by virtue of their subversive plain-speaking. In Temples of Delight, it is Jem, neither male nor Jewish nor even adult but nonetheless poised, Catholic, and well-read, who first rescues Alice. She is tall, scruffy, unconventional, given to flights of fancy (to disguise her humble origins), and believes in passion. Alice adores her and uses her as a touchstone—it is passion and not materialism that makes life worth living.

In Temples of Delight, Trapido uses attitudes toward food as an index of class and religion. Alice's friend Flora's appalling parents are so stingy that Flora is brought up to eat lumps of gristle and wear an overcoat indoors. Alice's mother treats Flora's family to a celebration meal in a restaurant. It is an episode of high comedy: Alice's builder father chats about bricks, Flora's father gropes Alice's mother and promptly dies of an unsuspected allergy to mussels, and the incontinent old grandmother piddles on the floor.

Though Temples of Delight uses the conventions of a school story, it includes elements of satire, melodrama (with some elements drawn from Mozart's Magic Flute), and comedy. The glue that sticks it together is psychological realism. Alice is fully drawn, though other characters, apart from Joe, the dominating male (this time Catholic and Italian-American), are lightly sketched. But when Joe arrives late in the novel—literally at Jem's deathbed—Alice, like Ali and Katherine before her, is ready to be swept off her feet.

Juggling is a sequel to Temples of Delight (though there are some inconsistencies with dates). It is more complex, full of unexpected twists and contrivances, and the women characters are its glory. Pamina is Jem's daughter, born by cesarean section while Jem lay dying. Christina was born early in Alice's marriage to Joe. But time moves on. Alice is less impressed by Joe than hitherto. As a teenager, Christina is filled with the need to rebel—both to quell Joe and to make her way in the world without his help. Abandoning her beloved sister, she finds a black, working-class replacement in the ebullient, capable Dulce. Alice also rebels, and there is an intricate, careful patterning of joinings-together and splittings-apart, of mistaken identities and disappearances, that mirrors the patterning of a Shakespearean comedy.

An undergraduate at Cambridge, Christina develops strong views on the Comedies. She has also learned more than the basics on relations between the sexes. "In the conflict of gender, the women win the war of words, but the men will win the battle." Katherine, and Alice before her, clever though they were, spent their youth without discovering as much. The book's ending, "frozen in a moment of precarious, brilliant symmetry," promises much for the future.

—Anne French

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