September 9, 2014 Book review: ‘The Marrying of Chani Kaufman’ by Eve Harris
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a novel that compiles several stories, tied together by their commonality as members of the ultra-orthodox community in London. The stories are unoriginal; about a couple meeting through a shidduch, a meddlesome mother-in-law, a young yeshiva boy who has an affair with a black girl and a middle-aged woman who runs off from the community. The stories are cut up in chapters that skip between the different stories, so all stories span the length of the book. But most of the book actually reads like a long long long introduction to the climax: the salacious wedding night scene between Chani Kaufman and her groom. The author clearly loves to write about the going-ons between couples. I regret to say, however, that except for the final chapters, the couples’ going-ons are rather uneventful.
The people in the book seem mostly stifled, uninspired, obsessed with Hashem, and repressed by the religious society. It is very frustrating and grating to read a book that is full of giant inaccuracies. Not inaccuracies of ritual, but inaccuracies of the cultural essence, the characters, and the spirit of the people. So my problem with this fairly negative book is not that it is negative, but that the negativities are often inaccurate.
The ultra-orthodox women have many children. While to the outsider, each child may seem to come as quickly as a single breath, well, that is not how it actually happens. The biological law of the nine-month pregnancy applies to religious women too! (Surprise!) So young Chani Kauffman whose mother had many children “had watched her mother’s stomach inflate and deflate like a bullfrog’s throat” we get probably the worst, inhumane and ridiculous description of the life of a woman who has many children, condensed into one terrible metaphor. A nine-month process is described as superficially as the duration of a breath. Are women really getting pregnant and unpregnant as grotesquely as a bullfrog’s throat’s dilation? The author expands: “Chani’s mother had become a machine whose parts were grinding and worn… an exhausted mountain of dilapidated flesh, endlessly suckling, soothing, patting or feeding… Her father sowed his seed time and time again in his wife’s worn out womb”. Is this realistically how big families happen, or is this rather overflowing with the condescension of store-bought feminism? I think the latter. Women everywhere work themselves to sheer exhaustion for whatever they value, and ultra-orthodox women do too. The assumption that this makes them machine-like objects without any agency or pleasure is classic narrow-mindedness. All that this description reflects is someone’s snap judgment of large families. It lacks any empathy or insight. In fact, when Chani’s mother is actually seen in action throughout the book she is engaged and warm and not at all “a machine of dilapidated flesh.”
There are many more such problems, for instance in the way the children experience being stifled (they wonder about bacon; sure, because another culture’s diet is REALLY what a curious person would think about) or in the radical, unrealistic way the rebbetzin runs off from the community.
Well. The inaccuracies were actually only the least of my problems with this book. The writing is, to quote its own words “not talking like a mentch!” I have no idea who the hell the Man Booker prize people are, or what their prize is, but I cannot begin to understand how a book like this one can receive an award. The writing tries very hard to be cute, so hard; it distracts from what’s happening in the stories. And the stories are told in chopped up pieces, hopping from one character’s tale to another, giving you a long drawn out piece about Chaim’s interest in Chani’s looks, or in Mrs. Levy’s scheme to stop the shidduch, so you lose your tale just when you were maybe (maybe!) starting to get faintly interested in one saga or another. In trying to describe what these characters are like, nothing comes to my mind but their physical characteristics (either great youthful beauty or terrible unsightliness) and their endless kvetching. The characters are so flat, that when you read it you almost see caricatures get pasted in from a crafty handbook of stereotypes. There is very little dialog, all of it stale. (example: “Chany Kaufman, your behavior today was inappropriate at the very least.’ ‘Yes, Mrs. Beranrd,” Chani whispered. “What’s that?” snapped the Deputy Head. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Bernard.” Etc.)
Lots of things happen because the author tells you it happened (“they grew closer”) not because the scenes are in the book, in over-decorated language riddled with bad metaphors: “her eyes shone with liquid apology” and she walks down the street “her legs pumping like pistons.” Or my favorite “he flamed the colour of chraine.” The pacing is distracting too because of the way the story jumps abruptly from character to character, but worse because you spend so much time with the drawn-out descriptive language, nothing happens, and then suddenly it is six months later. Most of all, the appeal of this book seems to lie in its exciting wedding night scene (which isn’t so exciting after all) and this single episode seems to be the book, with three hundred pages of adjectives fluffed around it. In all, I had a hard time getting through it and I would not recommend it.