Monday, March 13, 2006

'Disobedience' by Naomi Alderman

I've just finished reading Disobedience which I found to be an ultimately unsatisfying read. Set in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hendon it's the story of the return of one woman, Ronit, to the community for the funeral of her Rabbi father, and her meeting the woman she scandalised the community by having a relationship with, now the unhappy wife of the man tipped to be the new Rabbi.

Beyond Ronit and the other woman, Esti, there are no real characters in this book. Dovid, Esti's husband, suffers from migraines and for no explained reason doesn't seek treatment, while some space is dedicated to explaining the effect these have on his conscious state they tend to sideline him as a character. Other characters have very small parts and are never very believable.

We aren't told enough about the things that are needed to tell the story. I was going to include how the Orthodox community itself functions in that but I wonder whether I'd say the same about a similar story transposed to the setting of a Christian community. But I'd expect a sense of stifling claustrophobia penning the two women in, instead all we get are constant references to everyone knowing what happened.

And what happened? We aren't told. There are constant flashbacks through the first two-thirds of the book to Ronit's growing up, as well as how her early life mixed with that of Dovid and Esti. But we never find out exactly what Ronit and Esti got up to. There aren't even hints to allow us to make an informed guess. There's a fine line between telling an audience too much and telling them too little, this reads as though Naomi knows full well exactly what happened between Ronit and Esti, she just forgot to tell us. Ronit has escaped to New York and lived there for ten years when the book opens, she's having an affair with a married coworker. But that just seems tacked on, there's no indication made of where this has come from, why Ronit is having an affair rather than a relationship with someone who is available, in either gender, in the company.

It's an almost emotionless book. Ronit spends the time frustrated about the small-minded nature of the community which, as she can leave any time, seems pointlessly masochistic *, Dovid spends the time suffering seizures and being unconscious, Esti is miserable. But the text is depressed, that long, flat feeling of hopelessness, beached at an eternal high-tide. The moments when there might be some joy, when Ronit and Esti go to bed, the aftermath of Esti confronting the community's opinions at the 'wake' for Ronit's father, are skipped over, we follow Dovid into the bedroom when the act is over, we get told that nothing really changes after Esti speaks, it's just she's more confident in herself. Realistic possibility, but not satisfying.

*This is possibly why a device is put in that she has to leave the day before the funeral (because of her past notoriousness) but not a week beforehand, in case she tries to sneak back and cause a scene. This doesn't really work, especially as the novel then skips over that last week anyway.


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