One sentence plot
A young man and woman wend their way to the altar Orthodox Jewish-style, while their parents and friends navigate their own history and romantic dilemmas in a modern-day London of religious and cultural traditions and taboos.
Oh it is such a treat when a book has so many delightful qualities: beautifully written, excellent characters, interesting and evocative (and even educational) setting, and compelling, charming, page-turning plot. Bravo, Eve Harris. The only problem is I suspect that since it’s such an enjoyable read, it’s being passed over for the big prizes this year. It made it to the Booker longlist but then it was chopped in favour of some less readable tomes. But I’d hate to think those working their way through the shortlist might miss this lovely piece of writing.
I am always a sucker for a setting that is so integral to the plot that it feels a bit like a character. This book’s setting in Orthodox Jewish London paints a picture of a world far from my own experience (and yet just a few miles from where I lived in London). And most importantly, it paints a picture of what it’s like to live there, maintaining old traditions in today’s London. I got a glimpse of this interesting world through the lovely Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (recommended!), but Alderman’s Orthodox Jewish setting of restrictive rules and cultural taboos feels like just an introduction compared to this one. This complicated, claustrophobic world and those who are part of it is depicted in glorious, fascinating, detail.
And yet, it doesn’t take long before we realize that following the Orthodox Jewish traditions is, like any other, a culture that is simultaneously revered and resented, with all the emotions in between. The delight of Harris’s characters is that their approach to life feels real. Okay, there may be an occasional caricature here and there. But her technique of jumping from Chani’s voice as she braces herself to become a modern but traditional Orthodox Jewish wife to others who are struggling with the expectations and evolution of their own lives is insightful and intriguing and highlights different aspects of life in this setting.
Chani is a charming main character with the right amount of wit and spirit, ambition and obedience that made me love her. And her fiancé is a sweetheart who makes me smile. But they were born and bred in this world of matchmakers and shaven headed women. Their job is to make it work for them in modern day London. Almost more interesting to me is the rabbi’s wife, a woman who started off as a very secular Jew, became seduced by a boy in Israel, and by Israel itself, and slowly tumbles into a world where cultural expectations and restrictions and traditions creep in until they run almost impossibly high. As I read, I could almost imagine it happening to me. When she sneaks out to watch television in a café as her husband has recently declared it insufficiently Orthodox, I could feel her trepidation and delight like it was my own – and when it goes wrong, as it inevitably would, I felt as crushed as she did. Another great character is the university student grappling with the conflicting cultural expectations of Orthodox Jewry and the undergraduate lifestyle.
I love hearing about people who live in cultures that feel foreign to my own – but it feels like an extra treat to read about how they ended up there, and how they reconcile it with the world around them. And Harris does this sympathetically, delicately, and in a way that feels very true.
This book has its flaws, in the form of an occasional cliché, but for those who enjoy character-driven narrative, I think it is a triumph. I was quite horrified when I realized it had ended. I desperately looked for the next chapter, but at the same time, I had to grudgingly concede it ended in the right place.
The verdict: 5/5 shoes