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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living