Author: Naomi Alderman, 2006.
Genre: Contemporary. Faith. GLBT theme.
Other Details: Paperback. 277 pages.
Alderman and her publisher's claim that this is the first novel set in the world of British Orthodox Judaism since George Eliot's Daniel Deronda of 1876. It is a essentially the tale of two women: Ronit, the daughter of an esteemed rabbi who has rebelled and left for a secular life in New York, and her lover Esti, who remained within the community and married, even though she knows she will only ever be attracted to women.
When Ronit's father dies, she returns to Hendon, London to deal with the estate and attend his memorial. Her return is not popular with certain members of her father's synagogue for whom her very existence is an embarrassment. Ronit comes prepared to make some waves though she finds that her responses to the community and the faith she left behind is much more complex than she had imagined.
Naomi Alderman grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hendon and her father is a noted writer on Anglo-Jewish history. It was Alderman's first novel and won the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers.
This was our first 2010 selection for my library reading group. Overall, it was well received by the group. I certainly enjoyed it for its warmth and rich narrative. Aside from this I had during my first years in London lived in Hendon. Though my former husband was Jewish, his upbringing in New York and Florida was quite secular. Still there remained for him a strong cultural tie and so although we did not inter-mingle with the Orthodox community of Hendon, there was for him a familiarity in terms of language, customs and foodstuffs. Therefore, the setting of the book was very familiar for me.
One point Alderman makes through Ronit's voice is an observation that being gay and being Jewish are invisible states of being that one does not choose for oneself. She concludes that 'if you are, you are. There's nothing you can do to change it' but goes on to say that you can choose whether you practice or not, whether you choose to remain invisible or 'come out'. It was an interesting point and I've included more of the quote under the cut below. This proved an interesting talking point for the book. We also all enjoyed the interview with the author at the end of the book for the extra information it gave on the book's genesis. Certainly an accomplished début and I will look out for future works for this author.
"I've been thinking about two states of being - being gay, being Jewish. They have a lot in common. You don't choose it, that's the first thing. If you are, you are. There's nothing you can do to change it. Some people might deny this, but even if you're only 'a little bit gay' or a little bit Jewish', that's enough for you to identify yourself if you want. The second thing is that both those states - gayness, Jewishness - are invisible. Which makes it interesting. Because while you don't have a choice about what you are, you have a choice whether you 'out' yourself. Every time you meet someone new, it's a decision. You always have a choice about whether you practise."
Naomi Alderman's blog.