The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
|The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A sensitively-handled, bitter-sweet-humorous examination of faith at odds with the real world and how the believers cope. I smiled, laughed, cried and loved it right off the review scale… but not everyone agrees.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 350||Date: August 2013|
|Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd|
After waiting till all her elder sisters' weddings were done and dusted in true ultra-orthodox Jewish style, it's now 19-year-old Chani's turn. She's only met Baruch, her fiancé, four times and he hasn't even seen her elbows but the match is made and the day eventually arrives. Baruch secretly studies forbidden gentile literature and Chani has an inquisitive streak often perceived as rebellious so God knows what the future holds. Perhaps they should take the Rabbi's marriage as an example? Or perhaps not…
Debut English novelist Eve Harris was inspired to write Chani Kaufman while teaching in a London ultra-orthodox Jewish school and for me it's the second Man Booker 2013 long-lister that I've read and, like, the second I'd like to win the award. (The other one being Unexploded by Alison MacLeod.) Having said that, looking at the general reviews, Chani seems to be a marmite novel. Either you'll feel the writing is puerile or, like me, will be so swept away with the characters and emotion you either won't agree or won't care.
Eve pushes the door open to a private world that's mostly hidden from general view, part of the fascination being the ultra-orthodox customs. The clever thing is that she explains them to us sympathetically, without criticising either the faith or its devotees. For instance Eve sensitively shows us the financial pressures on a family with eight daughters (and therefore eight weddings to finance) alongside an intriguing view of the potential power shift if the groom's family steps in to help. We're shown some of the realities of following a religion that regulates the waking day as well as the joy and celebration connected with being a people with a heritage, a history and a hope.
The youthful anticipation and fears of young Chani and Baruch are set against the sadness of the Rabbi, Chaim, and his wife Rivka. It's a palpable sadness but they struggle to express it. Chaim tries desperately to communicate his emotions while Rivka's are stunted and thwarted by the anger and guilt following tragedy.
This isn't a novel that will bring you down though; it not only finishes on an optimistic note, throughout the story the poignancy is played off against some very funny moments. As it back-tracks over the lives of the main characters the humour shines through, as in the case of Chani's unfortunate school trip to the seaside. The smiles also co-exist with an almost overwhelming desire to reach in and hug the personalities (the matchmaker and Baruch's parents being marked exceptions!) trying to reconcile a faith that sets them apart from the world with the world's existence and intrusion (welcome or otherwise).
Judaism may be the setting but Eve touches on universal themes. It's about being true to ourselves when even our closest friends seem at odds with our chosen lifestyle. It's about forging a set of values when everything around us, locally and globally, seems to encourage the antithesis. It's about being human. It's about being alive and I adored it.
If you enjoyed this and would like to read more fiction that brings alive the conflict between the world and identity, we heartily recommend the World War II drama Noah's Child by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. If you'd like to read more Man Booker 2013 nominations, as you may have sussed, we just as heartily recommend Unexploded.
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