A first novel set in an introverted north-west London Orthodox Jewish community, Disobedience opens as a revered rabbi dies amid whispered discussions over the succession. The rabbi has taught and, latterly, been cared for by his nephew Dovid, also a rabbi. But Dovid is shy and terrified of public speaking: a handicap for a religious leader. His wife, Esti, is strange, thin and silent: the subject of rumours. They are childless: not a good sign. How could Dovid step into his uncle's shoes?
Flying into this mix, the rabbi's estranged daughter Ronit - Dovid's cousin and Esti's ex-lover - really puts the cat among the kosher chickens. Ronit is not silent, or thin. She is large, brash and rebellious and has quit Hendon for the Big Apple. Like all good New Yorkers, she has a therapist, though she resists the process. Unlike her former schoolmates, she wears long skirts only if they're slit up the side, has a high-powered job and sleeps with people she shouldn't. And she's not afraid to speak her mind, or to do what she wants to do.
But, as becomes increasingly clear, Ronit doesn't know her own mind. She is confused by her feelings about her father and his death, her religion, needs, wants and sexuality. She rails at Esti's "stupidity" - "she just can't admit who she is" - but this is more true of Ronit. Esti's silence is the outward face of introspection; Ronit's thunder is born of self-absorption.
Likewise, her anger at the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness that, she feels, pervade the community is fuelled as much by self-pity and the desire to shock as by righteous indignation. Consequently, she can only mount a self-destructive challenge to the status quo. Asked if there's a man in her life, she announces at a Shabbat meal that she's shacked up with an architect called Miriam, planning a commitment ceremony plus pregnancy-by-turkey-baster with the aid of a male couple. It's not true. Later, Ronit feels ashamed and admits it wasn't the right thing to do. She also asserts it would have been wrong not to do it.
She is, in other words, a chaotic mix of inner uncertainty, rage and loud, jolly extraversion. She crashes through other people's lives getting things horribly - often cruelly - wrong: misjudging her own and others' motives and behaving scarily like Bridget Jones's evil twin.
Disobedience has its flaws. Its denouement may demand particular effort in the suspension of disbelief, especially for those familiar with this particular brand of fundamentalist Judaism. And Naomi Alderman's message about the times and places for speech and silence - and the complex relationships between and behind both - feels a tad heavy-handed. But it's serious, sometimes funny and thought-provokingly vivid writing, lit by Ronit's Sturm und Drang struggle, as she tornadoes a jagged mess through the judgemental calm and order of this small community. This allows Alderman to show, through her tale's unfolding and some gently ardent disquisitions on Judaism, that if only Ronit would pause and give herself a chance, her religion and community would too; that dissent, impassioned debate and, indeed, disobedience are as much a part of the wriggling aliveness of Jewish life as is quiet conformity. L'Chaim!
Lisa Gee's 'Friends' is published by BloomsburyReuse content