If Harbor was a macrocosmic novel of cultural conflict, then Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience is a microcosmic one. Localised in Hendon, the nexus of Orthodox Judaism in London (and where Alderman herself grew up), its narrative operates within sharply delineated confines of time and space, and with a rather limited cast of characters. Ronit, the only daughter of Rabbinic scholar Rav Krushka, returns home to Hendon after her father’s death, temporarily suspending her independent life as a financial analyst in New York. She is horrified to discover that, during her extended absence Dovid, her cousin and the Rav’s heir-apparent, has married Esti, the friend with whom she had explored lesbianism and love in adolescence. Ronit’s presence soon proves divisive, not only throwing Esti into an emotional and sexual crisis but also disordering and threatening the values of the entire community. Conflicts of free will and religious determinism rise inexorably to the surface as all parties attempt to reconcile their cultural heritage with their personal desires, and more specifically, lesbianism with Orthodox Judaism.
The carefully partitioned structuring of each chapter into three voices – a Rabbinical one illuminating the tenets of Judaism, a third person descriptive one centred on Hendon’s Orthodox community and Ronit’s sassy first person – intimates one of the narrative’s vital themes: order. Given the novel’s Orthodox Jewish protagonists, for whom acts of proper separation are a fact of daily life – meat and milk, men and women, pure and impure – this is hardly surprising. One chapter, beautifully delivered, is given over almost entirely to this exploration of differentiation and partition:
“In the beginning, therefore, the most important work is of separation. It is of pulling apart the tangled threads. It is of saying, ‘This shall be separate from that. This shall be water, this shall be sky and this shall be the line between them, the horizon.’…What does it mean…? It means surely, that, to understand the world, one must understand the separation.”
The passage then segues into a scene wherein Dovid watches Esti cooking; he takes a silent pleasure in “simple appreciation” of her skills and appreciates “the wordless order of the kitchen, the separation of meat and milk which was not forced but seemed to emerge naturally from each utensil…It is natural, in the same way that trees remain rooted in one spot, that water runs downhill, that the walls of a building do not dance. Such order, Dovid thought, is the simple voice of God, whispering softly in the world.”
Disobedience is similarly tender toward other Jewish ordering traditions. It doesn’t couch a woman’s post-menstrual visit to the mikvah (ritual bath) simply in the vocabulary of coercion and control, of repression of women’s impurity. Esti is aware of her body’s cycles and appreciates them in a way alien to Ronit, so modern and empowered. Her visit to the mikvah is one of the most powerful of her scenes: she remembers her first ritual bath taken with her mother before her wedding. She remembers the prayer she recited, remembered that her skin “was porous, that she was infused with the water, which is Torah, which is life. She remembered knowing all would be well.” Then, painfully: “In recent years, though, she was only able to utter the first word of her prayer. ‘Please’, she would say in her heart as she entered the water ‘please’. Each time she wanted to continue the prayer, but did not know what to request.” There is a horror to this, and to the position of women like Esti, but it is somewhat appeased by the consolation of order. The preparations for the Sabbath and the stillness of Saturday, for example, are not necessarily restrictive; they are precise and calming, they give Esti’s life form. It struck me strongly that Disobedience is not so much a tirade against women’s place in Orthodox Jewish society as it is an interrogation of its meaning, theologically and psychologically. It is as much about choosing to be obedient as choosing to be disobedient, as much about the joy of belief as the rejection of it.
There is an equally affectionate yet probing line in vignette. Auxiliary characters like the traditionalist Hartogs are richly endowed and rounded by implication, while the workings of the community at large – the Sara Rifka Memorial Day School where Esti works, the Kosher shops and cafes and their customers – are well-observed. Michelle Roberts noted the effectiveness of Alderman’s “politics of space”, and therefore of order, in her review for The Times and I honestly concur.
All this cultural richness is captured in Alderman’s prose, which reminds me of Anita Desai’s, being rich in its clarity and beautiful in spite of a certain sparseness. Dina Rabinovitch, reviewing for the Guardian, rather unkindly called it “writing-by-numbers”, which strikes me as entirely unfair. Certainly there is a preciseness there, an undeniable neatness, but I’m inclined to see it as authorial intent and a function of the ordered world of the narrative.
In the same review Rabinovitch also accused Alderman of writing two-dimensional personalities (for which she should go straight to jail, do not pass go, do not collect £200 etc). I suppose there is a quietude to Disobedience’s characters that might be mistaken for shallowness: neither Esti nor Dovid has the presence or force of a protagonist and both seem overly passive, while contrary Ronit, with her cynicism and acerbity, can seem superficial, even spiteful. But there is much to love. Esti, mired between Judaism and lesbianism, is awash in fruitful conflict and the revelation of her interiority is surely the highlight of the novel. I can see why her conformity and apparent meekness irritates but it does become apparent that she has volition, that she makes her final decisions knowingly. Whether we can agree with them or not is a matter of our own prejudice. Dovid, with his dreadful, luminous headaches, is almost certainly a cowardly and cowed man, but there is also something brave in his supporting love for Esti, something honest in his self-deprecation. I found sympathy and affection for both; there is a real humanity to them.
Ronit was more difficult. At first the immediacy of her first person voice, as compared with the distance of the other sections, was refreshing and daring. Her rebellion against Orthodoxy and her father were courageous and liberating. It seemed clear that her role was to interrogate the restricted sphere of a woman’s life in Hendon; one of her first acts is to berate a Jewish proselytiser: “Some of us have been in that fold and found it narrow, and limiting, and more like a prison than a safe harbour. Has it ever occurred to you that God might be wrong?” But her return to Hendon reveals a petulance in her, an adolescent spitefulness that reflects badly upon her choices and her cut-loose lifestyle in New York. When confronted with a group of old school friends and their stories of marriage and babies, she retorts angrily: “Hinda Rochel, you used to come top of the class in science. Does changing nappies and making lunch for toddlers make you happy and fulfilled?” She thrusts her lesbianism, and its repercussions, before her like a justification for meanness, even though she is actually engaged in a hetero relationship with a married man.
Such narratorial ambivalence towards the “strong” woman revealed something essential to me about Disobedience as a novel: certainly it makes judgements on its character’s very different lifestyles – the passivity of Orthodoxy and the grating selfishness of the contemporary world – but in equal measure. Fair’s fair it seems to say, one is not necessarily better than the other. The novel’s resolution goes on to suggest that there is potential for happiness, of different orders and kinds, in both Hendon and out of it. Change, when it comes, may not be the kind or the degree that we expect. Alderman has God himself gloss the point: “And the Lord said, my child, my joy, things here are slow to change, for this is a stiff-necked and disobedient people, but at least they are willing to listen.” Perhaps that should anger the feminist lesbians amongst us…but hell, I’m one of them, and I can understand the rightness of many choices and I can appreciate the pleasure in quietude, the communication in silence, the power in listening.
In the end, Disobedience leaves its main question – how can Judaism (or, indeed, strong religious/social norms in general) and feminism/lesbianism be reconciled? – unanswered. Indeed, it posits it as an unanswerable, a matter for personal resolution alone: one of those matters in which the exercise of free will is vital and troubling. The narrative’s ambiguities are no failing. It is a beautiful first novel, a tender thing confronting mixed emotion: doing homage, admitting confusion, acting confession, and fantasising resolution. If this makes it seem a little naïve, a lot conflicted, then that suits me. Isn’t it the way things are?
It may interest people to know that Naomi Alderman is also a denizen of Typepad (all the best people are!) and you can read her blog here.