Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for April 8th, 2014

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2014

by Eve Harris (Sandstone Press, 2013)

My friend Carmen lent me this book to read on the plane to a conference last week. She got it from her daughter, who lives in London; it hasn’t even been released in the U.S. yet. Apparently it burst on the literary scene out of nowhere (first novel, unknown author) and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. It was really good, one of those books you find hard to put down. The book is narrated from the point of view of several characters who live in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in London, including the eponymous Chani, 19 and unmarried in a community where girls marry young; her fiancé Baruch Levy; Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and his wife Rebecca, whose role it is to instruct the groom and bride as to their marital duties and responsibilities, but whose own marriage is under great strain; and the Zilbermans’ son Avromi, Baruch’s closest friend, whose stint at university leads him into a temptation he cannot resist. Avromi’s and Chani and Baruch’s stories unfold in 2008 London, while the book flashes back to Chaim and Rebecca’s romance and attraction to ultra-Orthodoxy in 1981 Jerusalem. While Harris writes from the points of view of all of these characters, I would say that Chani and Rebecca are the real protagonists. Then again, maybe that’s just what I read into the story.

The book affords a fascinating glimpse into the insular world of the ultra-Orthodox. It’s a world most of us can hardly imagine, where women and men relinquish their freedom of choice to the laws of the Torah and of their community, and those who break those laws risk ostracism and banishment. Chani is known to be a bit wild and “brazen,” with the result that she has been rejected by several suitors already; whereas Baruch, normally compliant and risk-averse, refuses to obey his parents’ wishes to find someone else. Meanwhile, the Rebbetzin is dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage and questioning her role in the community. Each chapter focuses on a different person or people. Harris has made all of her main characters extremely likable even as she pits them against each other. A reader wants things to turn out well for everyone, but this just isn’t possible.

Highly recommended.

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