Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

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The Independent Culture

There is a familiar species of contemporary novel - metropolitan in focus, fashionably knowing in outlook - that aims itself as much at the external world as at the souls of its protagonists. Disobedience, the debut by 31-year-old Naomi Alderman, and in places a deft and intelligent work, is one such book. Its story, set among the Orthodox Jews of Hendon, north London, aims to lift a veil on the habits and words of a community known, but unfamiliar, to most of us. In this task of documentation it succeeds, but all too often that comes at the expense of more difficult, and genuinely novelistic, virtues.

Alderman, herself a product of Hendon's Jewish community, tells the story of Ronit, a young woman who escaped her Orthodox upbringing for independence in New York. But Ronit is forced to return to London when her father, Rav Krushka, Hendon's pre-eminent Rabbi, dies. Suddenly she is back in a world where prim Jewish ladies stare disapprovingly at her tight skirts. Worse, the girl with whom Ronit discovered her bisexuality, Esti, is now married to Ronit's cousin Dovid, the heir-apparent to the Rav.

Alderman has a fine-tuned sense of the small daily transactions that constitute family life; of Esti's and Dovid's silent marriage we learn, "she cooked and he ate - this too was a form of speech." Later, we hear about Ronit and her father's estrangement, "we lost our common language, and so lost everything." Much comes via a muscular, seductive third person prose. But regular, first-person entries from Ronit strain to reproduce the cadences of real speech.

Disobedience really falters, though, when Alderman neglects her characters' integrity in order to signal over their heads about Jewishness, or Hendon, or fathers. It's a tendency that sends a creeping paralysis across her narrative. Take Ronit: with her lipstick and high heels, and her frequent, knowing references to her psychotherapist, she often appears a mere type, a kind of walking argument against Orthodox Jewishness, rather than a real person. So when she asks an old friend, "does changing nappies and making lunch for toddlers really make you happy?" it's Alderman's own voice, shouting over Ronit's, that we hear. Strangely, then, as Ronit confronts the Hendon religious conservatives who would label her a disgrace, Disobedience becomes itself a kind of sermon.

This novel succeeds, instead, at its peripheries, where its author allows herself to disappear inside the story's minor figures. Here we see Alderman's wonderful treatment of the spiritually troubled and headache-prone Dovid, or the ideological and closed-minded Dr Hartog, an influential member of the synagogue committee.

Those threads are rich with life, and realism, so that in this novel's concluding pages they, and not Ronit's story, speak movingly of the accommodations we all must make with our ideas, and each other. There is an absence at the heart of Disobedience. But its few, breathing, living presences show it needn't have been that way.