Having just finished reading Eve Harris’s novel The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, I must admit to being a little surprised. I wouldn’t have expected to be so gripped by a novel that, in essence, describes a Jewish wedding. The plot is simple, in many ways: it describes the events leading up to the wedding of Chani and Baruch, and the wedding itself. But the book does much more than this, since it describes a whole world with which I am not very familiar, and provides a sensitive examination of relationships and faith under specific circumstances. I know relatively little about Judaism, and was fascinated by the detailed picture it gives of day-to-day life in the ultra-religious ‘frum’ communities in London, where every move is scrutinised and life is governed by ritual and beliefs – it’s quite eye-opening, in many ways.
The novel switches between different perspectives. Primarily it is that of Chani, opening with her marriage (“The bride stood like a pillar of salt”) and then looking back, examining her developing relationship with Baruch, carefully governed by the rules of the community and their faith, but it also examines Baruch’s motivations, fears and desires. It also gives the reader an insight into other relationships, particularly that of the Rebbetzin, or rabbi’s wife, Rivka, and Avromi, Baruch’s friend and Rivka’s son. We also see into the lives of Chani and Baruch’s parents. This is significant: a life of faith is not always easy, and for all of these figures, their faith is strong but often tested, and Harris shows this in a sensitive way, making it clear to the reader that there is much difficulty in the life they lead (through birth or by choice), but there is also much of value, including the close bonds in the community and the beauty and joy of religious faith and experience. The novel manages to avoid lengthy explanations of the wigs worn by married women, for example, or the significance of the matchmaker, but the intricacies of these aspects and the impact they have are always clear. (Helpfully, there is a glossary of words which will be unfamiliar to many readers, though even without it the meanings become clear in context).
Chani and Rivka, in particular, are sympathetic characters. Chani’s extreme innocence, protected by her strict upbringing in the Jewish community, is contrasted with her wish to be married, her growing sexual awareness, and her concerns about what married life might bring. For Rivka the situation is more complex: flashbacks show that she chose to convert to Judaism for her husband, but that the life they began together has changed for the worse, as they bury past sadnesses and grow apart. It is the developments in the characters’ stories which makes this a surprising page-turner: I found myself keeping on reading too late at night because I wanted to see resolution, and wanted to know how their lives turned out. The ending offers just enough by way of resolution, I think, without closing off too many doors or making trite conclusions.
This is a moving novel, then, perhaps more likely to appeal to female readers given the style and focus on love and marriage, but one which looks at big issues of living with faith, and relationships in general, and how conflicts may be resolved – or not – in particular contexts. The struggles and outcomes are different for all the characters: while Avromi battles with his desire for a non-Jewish woman and a life outside the community, Chani and Baruch, whilst sometimes expressing doubts about their lives, show a desire to remain true to their faith as well as each other. Rivka is the most complex character: while she offers religious and marriage advice to Chani, one senses she often doubts it. Yet the passages of her early life, when she rejoiced in her faith and in worshipping God, are some of the most vital and appealing of the book.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is Eve Harris’s first novel, apparently inspired by her time teaching in a Jewish girls’ school, and it is also one of the Man Booker longlisted books to be published by an independent press, Sandstone. On both counts, it is something to be celebrated, then, and it is also a book to enjoy; I recommend it.