Chicken soup for the bookworm

A rather different shtetl. Jewish Wedding by Arnold Daghani.
Some books you know you're going to enjoy before you even read them, some you think you will and are disappointed, some you know you're going to hate and they live down to your expectations. And then some, well, they just reach out and give you, most unexpectedly, a great big hug.

Such was my experience with the very wonderful The marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, an unexpected pure delight of a book. And undoubtedly a top contender for my Read of the Year. I plucked this volume from the library shelves while whizzing round at some speed late one Saturday afternoon with library imminently about to shut. Why did I choose it? I haven't a clue. Perhaps it was the banner at the top telling me that it had been long-listed for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize. The story wouldn't I think normally have appealed to me; but this novel was a complete joy from start to finish.

The eponymous Chani Kaufman is a 19 year old girl living in the Orthodox Jewish community based around Golders Green in London. Chani is expected to marry into the community but after a couple of meetings with some rather dodgy bachelors, and one even dodgier ancient widower, she appears to be doomed to a life on the shelf, much to the sorrow of her mother, who is desperately trying to cope with marrying off a huge family of girls. (Perhaps I should have realised that this was my kind of book, as it has much in common with one of my favourite musicals Fiddler on the roof). Chani's life though is about to change when she is spotted at a wedding by Baruch Levy, the "Orthodox giraffe". Like Chani, Baruch is a good Orthodox boy, but has his heart set on both trying to keep true to his faith and to himself. As Baruch resolutely pursues Chani, while being hindered by his mother - the Jewish mother from Hell - their story of their courtship and marriage are set against the marriage of Rivka, the Rabbi's wife.

Rivka becomes Chani's mentor in the weeks before her marriage, but her marriage is on the rocks. Her life has changed dramatically from the early days when she first met her husband. And although it looks as though the omens are good for Baruch and Chani's life together, the rigid world of Orthodoxy will tear Rivka's marriage apart.

This is a lovely novel. Warm hearted, very funny - just in that sort of way that Jack Rosenthal could be funny. But there is a serious side too. It doesn't ignore the isolation that some people can find within a rigid and, to a certain extent, intolerant community; or the secrets that are held within it. There is also much sadness. But as Chani and Baruch rode off into the Jerusalem sunset together, I so wanted to know what happened next, and hoped that there was happiness in store for the oddball couple. And that's probably the major reason why this novel works so well and has such an impact. The characterisation is superb. Yes, occasionally they can be caricatures. Baruch's Mum is gloriously over-the-top. But whether dealing with Chani's Mum sinking into a well of depression, or Chani herself, bright, irrepressible, naive, you completely believe in these people; and you find yourself shouting them on barely before you've turned page two.

In case you hadn't already guessed I loved this novel. What a stunning debut. I can't wait for Eve Harris' next.


Popular Posts