September 6, 2013 by markstani
There is one significant flaw at the heart of Eve Harris’ debut novel, The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman (pub. Sandstone Press). It is one which will have no end of academics wringing their hands in exasperation; Folio founders sighing with relief that their new Prize actually has a point.
And it is this: ‘The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman’, Harris’s story of the imminent marriage of two young Haredi Jews, is far, far too readable. It is carry-round-the-house too readable. It is stay-up-way-too-late too readable. It is absolutely, undoubtedly, MAN Booker Prize longlist too readable.
Two years ago, an awful fuss was raised over the ‘readability’ of the Booker Prize longlist. The argument got so heated a bunch of literary types went off in a huff: hence the Folio Prize was born. There were fears the Booker Prize would heed the warning and stockpile its lists with impenetrable introspection from hereon in.
Not so. The inclusion of ‘The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman’ on this year’s longlist is a victory for all those who refuse to cast clumsy, generalised judgements often before they have even turned a page. This is a book which deserves to be on the list for a number of reasons: chiefly, that it is no less than bloody good.
Chani Kaufman is approaching her marriage to Baruch Levy, a boy who glimpsed her at a different wedding, and pursued her according to ultra-orthodox protocol over a handful of awkward, strictly-no-touching dates.
The pair’s real fears – of suitability and, mainly, sex – form the central narrative of the novel, which explores each of the characters’ complex predicaments in turn, and not always chronologically.
Other threads include the compelling life story of Rivka Zilberman – the Rebbetzin, or Rabbi’s wife – through her introduction into the Haredi faith in Jerusalem, her marriage to the ambitious, increasingly conservative Chaim, and her problems coping with family tragedy in the context of such an hermetic existence. Following the same broad theme, their first son, Avromi, is struggling to reconcile his belief with the shapely distractions of his study at a secular university.
Together, those threads weave a complex, proud portrait of a faith which, like any of what we might dare call ‘closed societies’ brings fresh problems with each generation, not least the coming-of-age.
There was no television or internet at home or school. ‘A television is an open sewer in the living-room,’ her father growled. After school at Brent Cross shopping centre, she stalked the front of Dixons, mesmerised by the flickering screens and lurid colours of a world which she desperately wanted to plunge into.
But genuinely fascinating as it is, it is not just its insider detail – Harris taught for a year at an ultra-orthodox school – that lifts this relatively ordinary love story into the realms of something quite unique. There is deft humour running throughout this book, and Harris’ characterisations are superb: the impish, ever-so-slightly mischievous Chani; the well-meaning, cautiously defiant Baruch; the contrasting sets of parents, from Chani’s down-at-heel Hendon suburbanites to Baruch’s pompous pair, not least his garishly obnoxious mother who deviously seeks to destroy their alliance. She is the subject of a number of glorious set-pieces: another relates the tale of a school field trip which is accidentally led astray to the cusp of a nudist camp.
Occasionally, just occasionally, the dialogue lapses too much into the tell-not-show variety, and a couple of cliches crept past the editors’ pens. But this book is so devour-able that that is really nit-picking. I put it down after its immensely satisfying ending, and immediately yearned for more. Sod the readability-police. Isn’t that what good books should be all about?