Basic Black with Pearls
Written by Helen Weinzweig
Publication Date August 01, 2015
A lost feminist classic — and winner of the Toronto Book Award — reissued to coincide with the 35th anniversary of publication.
In her yearning, elusive search for a lover, Shirley Kaszenbowski sheds her drab “basic black” existence together with torturous memories of guilt and loss as a Jewish immigrant in Toronto.
Shirley Kaszenbowski, née Silverberg, is a middle-aged, middle-class woman in a Holt Renfrew tweed coat, a basic black dress, and a strand of real pearls. She may seem ordinary enough, pricing silk scarves at Eaton’s or idling in hotel coffee shops, but in fact she is searching for her lover. He is an elusive figure, a man connected with “The Agency,” a powerful technocrat who may or may not have suggested a rendezvous based on a secret code in the National Geographic.
Her search takes her to the world of her past as a Jewish immigrant in the Spadina-Dundas area of Toronto. She finds the bakeries and rooming houses of her youth still haunted by survivors of postwar Europe and by her own memories of guilt and loss, while the consolations of art, opera, and pornography offer only echoes of her own illusions and desires. Her strange, wryly funny odyssey ends in a dramatic confrontation scene with her husband and “the other woman,” as she trades in her basic black for another chance.
In Basic Black with Pearls, Weinzweig displays her gift for creating sympathetic characters in a slightly surreal, but always recognizable world.
Helen Weinzweig is the author of the novels Passing Ceremony and Basic Black with Pearls, winner of the Toronto Book Award. Her short story collection, A View from the Roof, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Helen Weinzweig died in Toronto in 2010.
"I must concede that Basic Black with Pearls, at least, is so good as to have been well worth the exhilarating wait" National Post
"Thirty-five years after its initial publication, and a hundred years since Weinzweig’s birth, Basic Black with Pearls is getting an admirable posthumous reissue via House of Anansi’s A-List series, asserting its relevance decades after it won the 1981 Toronto Book Award." Globe and Mail
"a funny and smart feminist classic that begs for rediscovery." 49th Shelf