Book Review – FAMILY HEIRLOOMS by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares 2Family Heirlooms Synopsis: 

“Zulmira’s fiction escapes the divisions among genres and constructs one of those hybrid and rational beings in whom one recognizes the consistency of modernity.” —Roberto Schwarz

Maria Bráulia Munhoz thought settling down with a well-off husband in a house of her own would inaugurate a life of freedom and contentment, but she soon discovered married life to be a series of tiresome formalities. And little happened with her husband, a much older judge, once the lights went out. Now the widowed Maria lives alone in her apartment in São Paulo, her only companions the scheming nephew of her deceased husband, Julião, and a loyal maid.

Family Heirlooms, a searingly brilliant novella from one of Brazil’s modern masters, follows the journey of Maria Bráulia and her rubies through the disappearing world of bourgeois respectability. (Frisch & Co.)

Translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn


This slim novella from Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, Family Heirlooms has as many facets as a precious cut gemstone.

On one level Family Heirlooms is a darkly humorous story of duplicity and pretence – a distinctly different comedy of manners. On a deeper level, this tale is a vehicle through which Tavares poses very serious questions for her readers.

While the narrative exudes a sense of maturity and wisdom in many respects, the central theme of the actions the characters reflect upon is naivety. Does the simple act of living to an old age warrant a person respect from the younger generation or does that depend on the way those years were lived? Does life experience excuse manipulation of the young for personal benefit?

How does one manufacture an upright old woman? Old age is supplied by time. Uprightness arrives on the hunched back of the world. Teeth like the hard crest of a gigantic old reptile which, depending on the perspective from which they’re viewed, has its spines (and those shards of glass that stick out to catch crooks) on top or underneath. Learning bit by bit: catching a glance that comes from above, holding it down below and keeping it artfully in place in the corner of the eye, the very corner of the eye, in order to throw it down, too, at the given moment; drumming fingers on the table, saying again and again: You know perfectly well what I’m talking about, and we’ll have none of that baffled expression because you don’t know, how very elegant! A long, tough apprenticeship…

Her prose, and its translation by Daniel Hahn, is suffused with gravitas and solemnity.

Tavares powerfully highlights superficiality in the guise of decorum and power.

With her social face once again on show, the other one, the strictly private one, recedes, as happens every morning, and is immediately forgotten by its owner. A face that, being so rarely seen by others, assumes the same modesty as her shrunken body; bringing it into the daylight, holding it up on her neck as though it were the most natural thing in the world (which in fact is precisely what it is now), displaying it to someone else, even someone with whom she is on intimate terms, such as her nephew, would seem to her an act of the most absolute and unforgivable shamelessness.

More pointedly she questions the value placed on tangible family heirlooms by all ages, and proffers that the behaviours modeled to future generations may indeed be the more lasting, and sometimes damaging legacy – you reap what you sow.

But Family Heirlooms is not all bleakness and philosophical exercise – a seam of wink and nudge and bawdy farce runs through this piece and playfully engages the reader. Life may not always be what we expect, but the unexpected can turn out to be more suited than that which we aspire to.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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Genre: Drama, Literature, Translation, Humour

Author Information: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares (1930) is an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction, whose works include: Termos de Comparação (1974), which was awarded the literature prize by the São Paulo Association of Art Critics; O Nome do Bispo (1985), winner of the Mercedes-Benz Prize in Literature and forthcoming from Frisch & Co. in 2015 as The Name of the Bishop; and Family Heirlooms (1990), which was awarded Brazil’s highest literary honor, the Jabuti Prize.

Other reviews of Family Heirlooms Typographical Era, Vulpes Libris, Necessary Fiction, Tony’s Reading List

* My receiving an ecopy of this title from Frisch & Co for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.