Basic Black with Pearls
by Helen Weinzweig, afterword by Sarah Weinman
April 2018 selection for the NYRB Classics Book Club.
Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. He recognizes her by her costume: a respectable black dress and string of pearls; his appearance, however, is changeable. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley (who prefers to be known as “Lola Montez”) to Toronto, the last place she wants to go. There the trail leads her through the sites of her impoverished immigrant childhood and sends her, finally, to her own house, where she discards her pearls and trades in her basic black for a dress of vibrant multicolored silk.
Helen Weinzweig published her first novel when she was fifty-eight. Basic Black with Pearls, her second, won the Toronto Book Award and has since come to be recognized as a feminist landmark. Here Weinzweig imbues the formal inventiveness of the nouveau roman with psychological poignancy and surprising humor to tell a story of simultaneous dissolution and discovery.
As dazzlingly splintered and disorienting as a hall of mirrors, this marvelously inventive sleight-of-pen fantasy may (or may not) represent the jagged self-image of a middle-aged Canadian housewife.... heavy on scenes from a rotten childhood and lightly dipped in madness—all of it delivered with spotlight-sharp images and iron-grey wit. Glittering, uncomfortable, one-of-a-kind fiction.
Celebrated in Canada as a feminist classic, Weinzweig’s searing 1980 novel captures a woman’s awakening to her lover’s exploitation….Weinzweig’s prose style is sharp, particularly her dialogue: strange and surprising, it knocks every character interaction askew.
Weinzweig’s absurdist take on the existential novel anchored by female experience should be required reading.
—Emily M. Keeler, National Post
Helen Weinzweig is a crafty writer, with a sure sense of timing; when the narrator finally manages to turn her back on her nightmares and pipe dreams, it is a happy ending that rings true.
—The New Yorker
Helen Weinzweig’s voice is original, her language startling and graceful, and the story she tells is as moving as a second chance. Basic Black with Pearls is a portrait of madness and delight—sensitive, funny and unique.
Basic Black with Pearls is certainly a text worthy of a revisit, its theme of the danger of a limited life sadly as blisteringly significant as it was 35 years ago. The novel offers little resolution, and even less clarity, making it an all the more authentic commentary on the trappings of domestic, suburban life. The reader is left uncomfortable, disturbed and as lost as Shirley is—which is, perhaps, the most potent way Weinzweig could deliver her feminist message.