|I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A novel tracing a Hassidic Jewish family across Europe between 1939 and 2012, demanding to be read. The New Yorker says Stunning while I'm just stunned.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: February 2013|
|External links: Author's website|
The date is 1939 and the place is what we know as Romania and Hungary. Young Zalman Stern is stopped by soldiers and for a moment he feels this is his last moment on Earth. Meanwhile, not too far away, one moment 5 year old Josef Lichtenstein is playing with his baby sister, the next his childhood is deleted by the same bigotry and blood that deletes her. One day their paths will meet. This is the story of Zalman, Josef, their descendants; their struggles, their beliefs; the cost of escape and the cost of remaining.
French-born/American-based author Anouk Markovits grew up in a similar family to that of her characters, each waking moment and each step of her future being ruled by strict adherence to the Jewish Holy Scriptures. At the age of 18 she was sent to America to fulfil the marriage her parents had arranged for her but escaped on arrival, erasing her existence from family's and community's memories in accordance with the penalty as written. She became 'forbidden'; a state that she uses in the title of her powerful debut novel, exploring the fundamentalist world from which she fled.
So are we to expect a fictionalised misery memoir or thinly-disguised literary therapy? Not a bit of it. As she writes of a community subsuming their humanity to become purer for God, Anouk encourages understanding rather than disdain. In the process she's written one of the most culturally fascinating, sensitive books I've ever read.
Our subtle lesson in empathy starts with patriarch Zalman. Through him we see the fear that imprisons the Torah's enforcer as much as the strictures of faith imprisoning his family. Non-adherence can lead to a taint for up to 10 generations, causing unthinkable Earthly reverberations as well as the perceived celestial knock-on effects of separation from God. The responsibility to prevent his loved-ones from straying is therefore immense, explaining his attitude and his actions.
There is an autobiographical character but Atara's not held up as any better or worse than any of the others. Indeed this is the nub of the enchantment: while we admire Atara, we feel for all of them, almost becoming part of the family.
The fascinating reasons behind the millennia-old customs are embroidered seamlessly into an eventful, twisting plot that proves Anouk to be an author who can communicate worlds of meaning in few, high impact words. Even out of context … and Hannah recited psalms that streaked her cheeks. has a touching power. Indeed as we see through the eyes of her creations they become real enough for us to walk around demonstrating that the author is more than gifted. Her words are imbued with a magic that provides pictures that won't allow us to put the book down.
Hypocrisy and dichotomy are as subtly left for our discovery, as when the stories of one permitted to escape the Holocaust is juxtaposed against those who had to stay and face its effects, including an interesting justification for the Holocaust from an unexpected source. There's also symbolism for those who seek it, e.g. the events following Mila losing her wig, revealing the bare head that only a husband is permitted to see.
While we abhor fundamentalism, we begin to understand the fundamentalist (admittedly not something that would work as effectively over all forms of fundamentalism). Although written by someone who, perhaps, has reason to portray the Hassidim in shades of revenge and vituperation, I Am Forbidden is an offering of forgiveness. By the last page I was stunned by Anouk Markovits' exceptional ability to communicate and humbled by her depth of grace.
If this appeals and you'd like to read more about the Jewish faith set against the other cultures and beliefs, we heartily recommend Noah's Child by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.
You can read more book reviews or buy I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits at Amazon.com.
I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2013.
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