Foolish Delusions by Anne Schuster

Anne’s novel, published by Jacana in 2005, is now available direct from the author. Order here

In this uniquely structured novel, the interwoven stories of a woman and her great-grandmother living in Cape Town, are artfully combined with a built-in workbook meant to teach creative autobiographical writing. Though the narrative explores gender, sexuality, morality, and colonialism in historical Cape Town, it also offers gentle, smoothly crafted, and insightful reflections meant to transform the life of the reader as a parallel to the protagonist’s own growing confidence, skill, and courage as she connects with her past.

A review of Foolish Delusions by ZA@Play December 2005

Skilful revelations

Despite its numerous sad revelations, Anne Schuster’s Foolish Delusions, is an absorbing read and a fine, multi-faceted achievement.

Foolish Delusions is one of the most inventive and unusual books I’ve read in ages. Defined on the title page as “a novel auto/biography”, it fully satisfies the expectations raised by the duality (as noun and adjective) of the word “novel”. Telling two stories in skilful juxtaposition, Anne Schuster also introduces tips and suggestions for aspirant writers, the value of which is often demonstrated in the double narrative of Foolish Delusions.

Central to the stories is the research of Capetonian Anna Bertrand who relates her own concern with present-day issues (‘I work as a researcher ­ gender issues, women’s rights, that sort of thing’). When her narrative opens she is investigating the legal rights of prostitutes and monitoring the case of a man accused of murdering a local sex worker.

Anna also becomes fascinated by the tragic history of her great-grandmother, Maria Jacobs Schultz, who was admitted to Valkenberg Asylum in 1893 and died there less than a year later. As Anna looks deeply and imaginatively into the events of Maria’s life that culminated in her incarceration, she unfolds not only her ancestor’s experience but that of late eighteenth-century women in general.

Much like the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), Maria’s life has been dominated by the needs and prejudices of men, first of her father and later of her husband. The drudgery of her existence, from the day her father makes her leave school at 13 to work in his shop, seems to have left little time for pleasure or joy.

Emblematic of male power is a bit player in Maria’s story, Dorothy Feather, who is sent to Valkenberg by her rapist father and ­ with the connivance of the doctors ­ is left to die there 53 years later. In the course of Foolish Delusions many other injustices and cruelties are touched on, some specifically and some more generally as Maria muses on the condition of women:

“Shadows flicker on the wall behind the bed, like the shadows in the candlelight of my memory. The shadows of women who walked at night in fear. Shadows of children afraid of their fathers. Shadows of women working, always working. I see women like Ouma carrying heavy loads of washing, servant girls in cold houses, toiling from four in the morning till late at night ­ and still not enough money to buy a new pair of shoes.”

Despite its numerous sad revelations Foolish Delusions is far from depressing and has many moments of humour and affirmation. It is an absorbing read and a fine, multi-faceted achievement.

– Shirley Kossick

Review in the Oprah Magazine August 2005

A jewel box of treasure to be opened chapter by chapter, revealing a luminescent narrative.

Anne Schuster’s novel Foolish Delusions (Jacana), is a small jewel box of a book. It skilfully weaves together the coming-to-writing of its contemporary narrator, Anna Bertrand, with the story of her great-grandmother Maria Jacoba Schultz, who spent the last year of her life in Cape Town’s Valkenberg Asylum. A jewel box because each chapter is a small treasure to be opened, looked at, loved. They are also pearls that, when strung together, form a luminescent narrative.

Bertrand is researching Maria’s life in Cape Town in the late 1800s while following the trial of a man accused, and ultimately convicted, of murdering a prostitute in Sea Point. Her great-grandmother’s life and concerns – with the constraints of children and husband, the abuse of women, women’s suffrage, and a final tragic flowering of love and passion – resonates increasingly with her own as she delves, through her writing, into the mystery of Maria’s commitment to Valkenberg as a paralysed mute.

A jewel box, too, because Schuster gives the reader not only two exquisitely constructed stories, but also presents you with the tools and the elements with which to tell your own life. There is an enthralling immediacy to this novel that is refreshing and inspiring. Immerse yourself in it, take Schuster’s generous gift and write your own stories.

– Margie Orford

Review in Cape Argus, Books, September 8, 2005

An inspiration for all who wish to write.

The impetus to write seldom comes as an idea or a clear plan. It comes instead as a ‘pressure around the heart’. So writes Anne Schuster in the first lesson – Rootprints – of her book Foolish Delusions.

But this is not a manual for writers; it is rather a novel and a memoir interspersed with brief lessons to help along those who feel that pressure.

Schuster, who lives in Muizenberg, has been teaching writing courses for many years, and has inspired many people to begin writing.

The first of the two stories in Foolish delusions is set in Valkenberg Asylum (now known as Valkenberg Hospital) in the 1890s, and the second is Anna Bertrand’s story, written in 2004 in Cape Town.

In the one-page ‘lessons’, Schuster writes about autobiography and gives the reader writing exercises to do as a way to tap into their own stories.

The Valkenberg story is that of Maria Jacoba Schultz, who has been committed for life for killing her husband, and who is Anna Bertrand’s great-grandmother.

The second story is Anna’s reflections on her life, and follows the format suggested in the lessons.

In the first lesson Schuster suggests finding an ancestor you know little about and starting a relationship with him/her, and so it is that Bertrand uncovers the bare details of Maria Jacoba Schultz and turns them into a wonderful story.

It is this story I found fascinating, with its insight into the lives of women around the turn of the 20th century, set in old Cape Town in places familiar to Capetonians.

In Foolish Delusions Schuster writes: ‘We need courage … to cross the borders, the barriers in ourselves and in our writing. To go to the edge of the familiar places in ourselves …’

Foolish delusions may just be the impetus for readers to meet this challenge, and begin writing the stories of their own lives.

– Jeanne Viall

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