Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Ronit Kruska grows up an Orthodox Jew in London, England. Her father is the rav, the beloved leading rabbi of their community. Ronit attends college in the U.S., gets a job as a financial analyst in New York City and never returns home. Years later, on the occasion of her father’s death, Ronit returns to England.

Esti Kuperman is the same age as Ronit. She is married to Ronit’s cousin, Dovid. We learn early on in the story that there is some kind of connection between Ronit and Esti. I've used GLBTQ as a tag for this post, so I'm sure you can guess the nature of that connection. The revelation of what exactly happened and how the two women handle it, both in the past and in the present, provide dramatic tension. And since the Orthodox community is so tightly knit, the reaction of other people is also an important element to the story. Ronit’s return really stirs things up. Everyone is aware of the dangers of gossip, or lashon hara, which means, literally, an evil tongue. But the temptation is so hard to resist.

Author Naomi Alderman herself grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in London. Hebrew words and Jewish customs that may be unfamiliar are gracefully illuminated within her writing. For example, the same paragraph that places the opening action at the end of the Yom Kippur fast also lets us know that the day is hot for September. Readers who know in which month Yom Kippur is celebrated are not insulted – and those who do not can now visualize that the death takes place in autumn.

Each chapter is introduced with a quote from Jewish sacred text or prayer and then a brief sermon, presumably in the voice of the rav. The story alternates between third person – a narrator with a focus on Esti and Dovid – and then Ronit’s point of view, told in first person. The shift in voice is marked by a change in font from serif to sans-serif.

Ronit struggles with two aspects central to her identity – being gay and being Jewish. Both of these things are invisible to outsiders. That a lesbian would leave an environment that stifled any difference from the norm is not surprising. I was most intrigued by Esti and her decision to stay.

Disobedience was awarded the Orange Prize for New Writers.

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