Thursday, 9 December 2010

Disobedience

by Naomi Alderman

Once upon a time, there were three good friends: two schoolgirls, Esti and Ronit, and a boy, Dovid. They dreamed of the future where three of them will be together.
And then? I don’t think we’d quite decided. Being together in the same city, away from my home, seemed enough.
Of course, the future did not turn out quite as the children imagined it. Esti and Dovid, now a married couple, are still trapped (can’t think of other word) in their native Hendon. Ronit escaped to New York years ago; now she is coming back.

There are many parallels between Disobedience and Brick Lane — I am saying this in a good way, mostly, for I liked both of them. Unfortunately, they both have less than convincing “happy endings”. Ronit, the subversive one, maybe a bit too arrogant to be likeable, accepts a bribe to be quiet. Worse still, it is said that now she even observes Shabbat and sometimes prays. What happened to the rebel? Esti, the silent one, surprised me by being stronger and bolder than I thought. Still, why didn’t she follow the love of her life to New York? On the contrary, her apparently “ineffectual” and also rather quiet husband, now the Rabbi, deserves all respect. Maybe he is only one of the three who is truly happy.

Disobedience is a highly readable, intelligent, thought-provoking (at times, just provoking) novel. It has its flaws, but so do a lot of good books. Most importantly, I started to care about the characters, even though in the end they disappointed me.
These are subtle things. We don’t condone wife-beating here, or genital mutilation, or honour killings. We don’t demand head-to-toe coverings, or cast-down eyes, or that a woman must not go out in public unaccompanied. We are modern. We live modern lives. All we demand is that women keep to their allotted areas; a woman is private, while a man is public. The correct mode for a man is speech, while the correct mode for a woman is silence.

I’ve spent a long time proving that this isn’t so. I’ve spent a long time insisting that no one else can tell me when to speak and when to remain silent. So much so that it’s hard for me to tell when I want to be quiet.
Disobedience: A Novel
The “exclusive additional material” of this Penguin edition contains an interview with Naomi Alderman, a list of her favourite kosher restaurants in London, and even (for the kitchen-minded) some Jewish recipes.

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