Date: Friday, May 13th, 2006
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle
The Viking publicity machine is in full gear for Naomi Alderman. Her debut novel — said to be the first ever set in the North-West London Jewish Orthodox community — is being serialised on Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime,” with actresses Sara Kestelman and former “EastEnders” star Tracy-Ann Oberman as narrators; she recently featured in a four-page spread in the Guardian’s G2 supplement; and her publicists are heavily pushing her as the new Zadie Smith or Monica Ali.
Considering her sexy subject matter — her book’s protagonists are two lesbians — she should have a hit on her hands. Should have, that is, unless word of mouth reverses the buzz. For “Disobedience” is less Zadie Smith or Monica Ali, more Naomi Ragen.
When Rav Krushka, hallowed leader of a frum Hendon congregation, dies, his daughter Ronit returns to London from a decade-long self-imposed exile in New York, where she has dropped religion, become a career woman, sleeps with her boss and undergoes extensive therapy. Eagerly waiting for her return is Esti, the wife of Ronit’s cousin and the congregation’s heir-apparent, Dovid— and Ronit’s former love interest.
The reunion forces Ronit to come to terms with her lingering feelings about religion, while Esti — who is regarded by the community as frail and strange — must come to terms with her lingering feelings towards Ronit, and confront the state of her marriage.
Alderman deserves praise for discussing openly the issue of sexual orientation in the Orthodox community, which has been receiving more attention in recent years but is still largely a taboo. And she makes a bold attempt to portray the Orthodox community sympathetically yet critically.
But her attempts to convey some of the exoticism of the community (to non-Jewish readers, at least) make it sound more like a mystical and mythical Polish shtetl than a modern congregation.
Many of the minor characters — “Hartog the [shul] president, Levitsky the treasurer, Kirschbaum the secretary” and Esti and Ronit’s gossipy former school friends — are heavily stereotypical. Large parts of the narrative are hard to swallow, notably the scene at the end where Esti admits her “improper desires” to the congregation and seems to meet with their understanding.
Indeed, the wimpy Esti, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown for much of the book, is a particularly grating character. Even Ronit doesn’t have patience for her, and it’s not clear what attracted her to Esti in the first place.
Most strikingly, the remarkably uneventful story singularly fails to deliver on the sensational theme. Many readers will be disappointed to discover that, despite the “lesbians in Hendon” hype, the climax of the entire novel seems to be a brief kiss in a park (is this an attempt by Alderman to show sensitivity towards the community about which she is writing?). Had Alderman successfully flashed back to the story of Esti and Ronit’s original romance, that wouldn’t have mattered, but the past, which should have been the meat of the story, is treated too briefly. And while there’s a lot of thinking (Ronit) and hesitating (Esti), not much else happens.
Had “Disobedience” not been so loudly trumpeted, it would have quickly fallen by the wayside and, in a couple of years, the undeniably promising Alderman, who has published award-winning short fiction, could have come out with a more polished, more mature novel, her first effort forgiven and forgotten, as so many first novels are.
She deserves sympathy. It’s her publishers who must shoulder the blame for pushing her into a limelight for which she is clearly not ready, merely in order to jump onto a trendy “ethnic” literary bandwagon.
Miriam Shaviv is a senior JC journalist and former literary editor of The Jerusalem Post