This week seems to be the week to talk about “fictional depictions of unique subcultures as experienced by their authors.” What prompted this rather awkward description? Well, Squat is an attempt by Taylor Field to bring to life the world of the homeless in urban America based on his experiences. In a way, Naomi Alderman’s first book Disobedience seeks to do the same thing with world of Orthodox Jewry in London. Here is a brief description:
For Ronit Krushka, thirty-two and single, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Orthodox Judaism is a suffocating culture she fled long ago. When she learns that her estranged father, the pre-eminent rabbi of the London Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised, has died, she leaves behind her Friday night takeout, her troublesome romance, and her boisterous circle of friends and returns home for the first time in years.
There, amid the traditional ebb and flow of the community — the quiet young women returning from their kosher shops and the men with their tightly clutched prayer books — Ronit reminds herself of her dual mission: to mourn and to collect a single heirloom — her mother’s Shabbat candlesticks. But when Ronit reconnects with her complex and beloved cousin Dovid and with a forbidden childhood sweetheart, she becomes more than just a stranger in her old home — she becomes a threat.
So here we have two first time authors both writing about a unique world they have experienced first hand. I noted in my review that I found Squat largely disappointing, so how did Alderman fare? Much better. While there are certainly some weaknesses evident in Disobedience – and more about that below – it is a captivating and thought provoking story about the clash between the modern world of freedom and desire and the orthodox world of tradition and restraint. It is also a timeless story about living with the consequences of our choices.
As a person who is interested in the role of faith in the modern world, I found Disobedience intellectually and aesthetically stimulating. Intellectually the contrasting and colliding worlds involved are fascinating. And in chronicling the clash between these two worlds – Ronit’s modern one full of seemingly unlimited choices and the constrained Orthodox world of tradition and rules – Alderman refuses to present an easy solution. Instead she uses the experiences and perspectives of both to highlight the tensions involved. She is not afraid to point out the flaws and repercussions of Orthodox Judaism but she also paints a loving – to me anyway – portrait of its wisdom. In the same way, she doesn’t simply celebrate modernity as a perfect world of choice and freedom but notes the potential perils of unbridled choice and individualism.
But Disobedience is not just a thought provoking look inside a devout and closed world, it is also a timeless story about living with the consequences of our choices. In their own way all of the major characters must come to grips with the choices they have made, the repercussions of those choices, and how they will move forward in their lives.
Alderman is clearly a talented writer and her portrait of the London Orthodox Community reflects this, but her characterization is a little thin in places. Ronit can come off as simply a caricature at times (busy, successful women living in NYC, therapy, dating a married man, etc.) and her rebellion can seem a bit cliche as well. But it is in the contrast between her and Esti – her former friend and lover – that the book gets its impact. And it is hard to deny that this type of character represents a certain aspect of modern life.
Alderman alternates between third person narration focused on the Hendon Jewish community and a first person account by Ronit. I found the sections dealing with Dovid, Esti, and the rest of the Hendon Jewish community to be fuller and more drawn out (I particularly enjoyed the chapters that began with a discussion of Jewish law and history), but the Ronit sections give the novel a quicker pace and provide the contrast. Orthodox Judaism has a rhythm and settledness about it while the modern world is often hectic chaos; always hurtling forward. Ronit mirrors this as she always seems to be pushing forward and leaving things behind; never stopping to really think about her life. It is in the interaction of these two worlds that we can see both of them more clearly.
It is also worth noting that the perspective you bring to the book is likely to have an impact on how you view the characters. Those sympathetic to orthodoxy or tradition will react differently to those with a more libertarian or libertine perspective. This is another reason I found it so interesting.
Whatever your perspective, readers who appreciate interesting stories and strong writing will enjoy Disobedience. I certainly did, and look forward to more from this promising young author.