Eve Harris: Tension of a life without certainty

Her fiction debut is witty and compassionate, but Danuta Kean finds the author searching for solid ground

I can tell when an interview is not going well. I feel like I am walking on ice in ballet pumps. No matter how hard I try, I slip around, unable to gain purchase and I start to ramble in a feeble effort to dispel the tension. I am getting that feeling today as I interview Eve Harris.

The author, whose compassionate and witty debut The Marrying of Chani Kaufman has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is being defensive, and I don’t understand why. I ask how ultra-Orthodox Jewish friends helped with the novel and she stabs back: “I’m not going to tell you their names.” I hadn’t asked for them. Then she exclaims: “You have to remember that my father was a Holocaust refugee. This is what you need to write about.” It is the third time she has told me what I should write about. The hostility isn’t entirely one-sided.

It’s not that my questions are inappropriate. I started by asking about the ultra Orthodox private Jewish school where Harris taught English and drama for a year. She informs me she has already been interviewed about the school and doesn’t want to repeat herself: “If you want something different, you shouldn’t ask about that.” It is meant to be friendly, but it feels like a slap.

This is awkward, because the school inspired the novel. I know this because all the book publicity says so. It was where Harris, who describes herself as a secular Jew, observed the Charedi community at close quarters. Its rhythms, its language, its warmth, its humour, its restrictions and expectations flow through the book like the River Jordan into the Dead Sea.

The book opens as 19-year-old Chani (say “Honey” breathily to get it right), is waiting to marry 20-year-old Baruch Levy. She is in a Bedeken room, where Baruck will look to see she is the girl he chose. Throughout the book Chani chafes at the restrictions placed upon her, especially regarding sex. Not that she wants it, she just wants to know what it involves. By the time she and Baruch are left alone, she is terrified.

Harris admits Chani is “an amalgamation of all the naughtier girls I have taught”, though she adds, “with a bit of me thrown in”. The girl’s life is strictly controlled. At school the rude bits in art books are covered by stickers and everyone covers up, as happened where Harris taught. “I had to make sure that my elbows were covered, my knees were covered and my collarbone,” she recalls. Seated in the breezy sitting room of her Hampstead flat, it is hard to imagine Harris covering her bleached blonde crop with a wig, as required of married Charedi women, or ditching jeans for a long skirt.

Direct inspiration also came from a story told by a former colleague about a pupil-turned-teaching assistant who asked frum (religious) staff what would happen on her wedding night. They provided such graphic detail the girl ran from the room crying. Harris’s voice drops: “They are lambs to the slaughter.”

How can I not ask about the school? Because The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman is about more than an innocent girl in a rigorously controlled community hoping for a soul mate while being paraded before husband material (Jane Austen has done that already). At the heart of the book is the theme of identity and the glue that fastens us to communities, be they religious, racial or social.

In a narrative that weaves the viewpoints of the bride and groom, it is the third story which provides the emotional and thematic complexity needed to raise the story to a Booker contender.

It is the story of Rivka, a rebbetzin, whose ambitious husband, Chaim, marries the couple. Rivka’s narrative clouds the love story – a late miscarriage is covered in harrowing detail, a reminder of Chani’s purpose in life post-marriage, her doubts fed by loss, longing and loneliness. Child of Holocaust survivors, whose experience has shredded their faith, she had little understanding of what her Judaism means until she met Chaim.

There are parallels in Harris’s life, especially her parents’ rejection of God. “My father had memories of Hassidim being made to scrub the pavements with toothbrushes on their knees while being spat at, and of being forced to smoke by Nazi soldiers when he was seven years old.” Her voice is tense with rage as she explains his rejection of religion.

A Polish Catholic family took her father and his family in. An English public school girl in prosperous Chiswick, far from the Jewish communities of north-west London, Harris listened as her father spoke of a childhood blighted by fear. As she speaks I am reminded of the small things that delineate our freedom. Her father could not use urinals in case someone noticed he was circumcised. “I grew up thinking that all other Jewish teenagers had fathers who had been through the Holocaust and that was the norm,” she says flatly. Suffering defined her Jewishness for teenage Harris. She felt lonely and she longed for the company of other Jews.

For the young Rivka this isolation and longing makes the Charedi seductive. Harris admits to being beguiled too, but the rigidity of ultra Orthodox life also repels her. “I am spiritual, rather than religious,” she insists, whatever that means. And that strikes me as Harris’s problem. Like me she wants to walk on solid ground. The charm of the Charedi is their certainty. “Everyone has a place in it and is included.” Her words tumble out. “Their world is rich in meaning and tradition and depth in a way that we don’t have.” She looks crestfallen and I realise I am not the origin of the tension in the room, it is life in all its uncertainty that makes her tense.

Danuta Kean is Books Editor of Mslexia, the magazine for women who write

Extract: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, By Eve Harris

Sandstone Press £8.99

“Her mother had become a machine whose parts were grinding and worn. Once she had been a slender and supple young woman, joyful and quick in her movements. Over the year’s Chani had watched her mother’s stomach inflate and deflate like a bullfrog’s throat. She had never known her mother  not nursing a child. Now, when she looked in her mother’s eyes, she saw the light had gone out.”

 

Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn