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Tuesday December 24, 2013 MYT 7:00:00 AM
Tuesday December 24, 2013 MYT 9:01:25 AM
EVE Harris’s first book, longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, lies between comedic and serious. The serious subject at its core – the semi-arranged marriage of two young Haredi Jews – is belied by the warmth of the writing. There are demons here, but they do not terrify.
Twenty-year-old Baruch Levy sets his heart on 19-year-old Chani Kaufman but the pair are from starkly contrasting backgrounds, even within their narrow Hasidic world: Chani is one of eight daughters growing up in a shabby home in Hendon, north London; Baruch is the elder son of a dubiously wealthy landlord in neighbouring Golders Green, their luxurious house presided over by his social climber of a mother. What Baruch and Chani share, though, is spiritedness and stubbornness. Each has rejected the various suitors offered up to this point. As denoted by the title, Harris’s premise is that this union is not just a binding agreement between two people – it affects families, friends, the wider society.
As the novel opens the bride is waiting in the sequestered bedeken room, where the groom will verify that she is the right woman, sweating in a wedding dress worn by so many generations it is rotting at the armpits. Harris captures Chani’s combination of anxiety, sexual curiosity, teenage boredom and deep pride in tradition. She also sets up a figure of comic but serious opposition in Baruch’s mother – her crude attempts to bully Chani provide enjoyably icy stand-offs.
Humour abounds, but so do pathos and anger. Chani despairs that she will become an exhausted shell like her endlessly childbearing mother, and frets that her parents will bankrupt themselves with the task of marrying off eight girls. Baruch, destined to train as a rabbi, secretly yearns to study at university.
Harris’s eye for suburban social mores is wickedly acute, as is her evident relish in describing both the sensual life and its absence.While perhaps too breezily written to have taken it further in the Booker stakes, her book has the potential to be that rare thing – a crowd-pleaser about Orthodox Judaism. – Guardian News & Media
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