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After all the hoo-haw and strain of reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics, it was a joy to read Naomi Alderman's Disobedience.* A strong and beautiful novel, Disobedience had my full attention from the first page. Although I savored the good writing, I couldn't wait to find out how it ended. There is simply nothing unsatisfying about Disobedience, and quite a lot that is simply great.
The novel is about a small community within an already small community within a neighborhood of North London called Hendon. The community never has a name, that I'm aware of, but it is centered on a synagogue. The synagogue, thrown together out of two gutted semi-attached houses, is presided over, at the start, by Rav Krushka, a forceful and inspiring religious leader - but nonetheless a man too quiet and self-contained to be described as "charismatic." He is in failing health, and the first Sabbath after Simchat Torah, as the novel begins, the congregation is far more concerned about the Rav's immediate future than it is about higher matters. We watch the service mostly through the eyes of Esti Kuperman, from her seat at the front of the women's gallery. Esti is the wife of Dovid Kuperman, and Dovid is the Rav's right-hand man. But he is also bookish and halting: can he step into the Rav's shoes when the inevitable happens? That question runs as a sort of supporting story throughout the novel. It is answered at the end as an aspect of the resolution of the lead.
On the ninth page of my copy, the font shifts; serifs disappear. The narration shifts, too, from third-person to first. The shift will occur in each of the novel's chapters, and, as devices go, this is one of the most effective deployments that I've ever seen in fiction. By the third chapter, any misgivings about fancy footwork have abated, and you treasure the moment at which the omniscient observer hands the floor over to Ronit Krushka, the Rav's daughter. Ms Alderman knows how to make the alternation of voices work for her, but, beyond that, there is an almost ceremonial politeness the alternation: it is a call and response, between a community and an outcast whose response the community does not really care to hear. Ultimately, the alternation conveys something of the transcendence of a religious service. For all the shocking behavior contained in Disobedience, it is a profoundly pious novel.
Within a few sentences, you know that Ronit is at least a major reason for the novel's title. Ronit lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and has only been back to Hendon once since she left for school in New York. School in New York? Her father knew. He knew that Ronit would prove to be a disruptive element in his community, and the community came first. For Ronit is not a believer. She has long since rejected the ways of her father's congregation. But for reasons that she can't quite place, she wants her mother's Sabbath candlesticks. She wants one last look into the world that she has left behind.
The second chapter begins with a brief homily that begins, "Torah, we are told, is compared to water." The word that came to mind was midrash. although I'm not sure that that's correct. In any case, such discussions of Jewish faith will begin all subsequent chapters, just as Ronit's narrations will end them. They are astonishingly well done and always interesting, if only because you try to glean from them what developments they foreshadow. The assurance with which Ms Alderman applies elegant, human reasoning to Bronze Age ideas is nothing less than remarkable. More than anything else, it allows her to create an observant community that outsiders can enter with some understanding and no little awe.
As the novel approaches the midpoint, the past that Ronit, Esti and Dovid share peeps out, a little bit at a time. Dovid, the Rav's very obedient nephew, is afflicted in equal measure by flattening visions that sound like something between a migraine and epilepsy, and by love for Esti. But Esti has always been in love with Ronit. She has married Dovid, because it was the right thing to do. But their marriage has been childless. When Ronit returns, she's surprised to find Esti; she was sure that Esti, whose lesbian inclinations were always stronger than her own, would have taken flight, especially after her own desertion. (Ronit is, at the beginning of the novel, involved with a married man.) But Esti can no more leave Hendon than Siamese twins can separate themselves with a pair of nail scissors. She cannot stop living the observant life.
But she can't resist Ronit, either. The two women take a walk in the evening. An advance is made and rebuffed - and witnessed by other members of the community. One of my favorite passages in Disobedience is the grand set piece in which word of the indiscretion passes from mouth to mouth. The seventh chapter begins with a homily about the evils of lashon hara - speaking evil, gossiping. What follows is a gradually unwinding demonstration of the failure of many women in the community to resist it. The passage is much too long to quote in full, but the understated climax, bathed in hushes and sidelong glances, certainly manifests Ms Alderman's writing skill.
Mrs Stone communicated her suspicions to her friends, Mrs Abramson and Mrs Berditcher, when she happened to encounter them later that morning in the bakery, purchasing soft, warm onion platzels and aromatic granary loaves. The clean smell of bread engulfed them as they stood to one side, allowing others to elbow their way toward the counter. Mrs Stone tried to keep her voice low, but among the demands for "two loaves of rye, sliced thin!" or "two dozen bridge rolls - the large ones, not the small!" she was forced to declare her troubling thoughts loudly. The women nodded as she spoke. The return of the Rav's daughter, the mysterious anger of Fruma Hartog, her failure to mention Ronit as one of the guests at her Shabbat table. It all seemed to have some significance. But what?
Mrs Berditcher drew breath. She might know something. Just a little piece of news. The bread slicer clattered, its comb-blades flickering up and down as the women drew closer. What? What did Mrs Berditcher know? Mrs Berditcher shook her head. It would not be right to speak of such things. She and Mr Berditcher thought they had seem something on their walk home after Shabbat the previous evening. But they could not be sure. It had been dark. They had been far away. Their eyes might have deceived them. Although, seeing Ronit so different, her hair so short, her demeanor so assertive and still unmarried at thirty-two, well, there seemed a kind of sense to it. But what? What had been seen? The bread slicer roared into life again, a limp-haired assistant by its side feeding it four large, square white loaves. Mrs Berditcher demurred. It would certainly be lashon hara to speak the words, and lashon hara is a thing of evil, as they had learned many years before. Mrs Stone and Mrs Abramson heard, as though from far away, a faint and calming voice telling them to desist. Move on, it said, go on with your shopping. Buy bagels and kichels and rugelach. But nearer at hand they felt a quickening pulse at their temples. Go on, they pressed, go on. Mrs Berditcher hesitated and, in a low voice, when on.
The shameful suspicion unrolled, binding them together silently and firmly. Each looked at the other two to ensure that they had fully understood the significance of the remarks. They looked around. The clamor of the customers demanding half pounds of cheesecake and savory rolls continued unabated. None of the three wanted to speak first and perhaps reveal herself ignorant or naive.
"It can't be true, surely," said Mrs Abramson at last.
Mrs Berditcher, despite the nagging of that quiet voice reminding her patiently that she could not be sure, declared that she was. Absolutely. Ronit had always been wayward, even as a girl. There had been half-stated rumors about improper behavior even then, Mrs Abramson could surely confirm. Mrs Abramson nodded thoughtfully.
Presently, the community's biggest financial supporter, Dr Hartog, a vain, assertive Harley Street specialist, will launch a plan to bribe Ronit, quite coercively, into leaving Hendon. Not immediately, but right before the hesped (a commemorative service) that the community will throw in the Rav's honor. Naomi Alderman does not highlight the irony of the community's rush to erroneous judgment about Ronit, but it's there for the rest of the book, another quiet presence among many.
I wondered what kind of book Disobedience was going to be until it was nearly over. Was it going to end happily or sadly? Much as I don't want to answer that question, I feel obliged to state that Disobedience is a comedy of the most exalted kind. Ronit's wiseacre feminism and the community's ageless conservatism meet on comic terms. Although the Rav's followers want to expel Ronit as an alien, inimical element, what they have going is far too strong even to be dented by the uproar that she threatens. As in all high comedy, what lingers is not the happy ending (such as it is) but the heightened familiarity of the world, a world that, for all its ritual and righteousness, is made up, like every world, of human beings. The people of Hendon are not so different after all. (September 2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press
* A copy of this book was supplied to me at no charge by Simon & Schuster's publicity department.