A crowd-pleaser

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The Mar­ry­ing Of Chani Kauf­man

Au­thor: eve Har­ris

Publisher: Sand­stone Press, 363 pages

EVE Har­ris’s first book, longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, lies be­tween comedic and se­ri­ous. The se­ri­ous sub­ject at its core – the semi-ar­ranged mar­riage of two young Haredi Jews – is be­lied by the warmth of the writ­ing. There are de­mons here, but they do not ter­rify.

Twenty-year-old Baruch Levy sets his heart on 19-year-old Chani Kauf­man but the pair are from starkly con­trast­ing back­grounds, even within their nar­row Ha­sidic world: Chani is one of eight daugh­ters grow­ing up in a shabby home in Hen­don, north Lon­don; Baruch is the elder son of a du­bi­ously wealthy land­lord in neigh­bour­ing Gold­ers Green, their lux­u­ri­ous house presided over by his so­cial climber of a mother. What Baruch and Chani share, though, is spirit­ed­ness and stub­born­ness. Each has re­jected the var­i­ous suit­ors of­fered up to this point. As de­noted by the ti­tle, Har­ris’s premise is that this union is not just a bind­ing agree­ment be­tween two peo­ple – it af­fects fam­i­lies, friends, the wider so­ci­ety.

As the novel opens the bride is wait­ing in the se­questered be­deken room, where the groom will ver­ify that she is the right woman, sweat­ing in a wed­ding dress worn by so many gen­er­a­tions it is rot­ting at the armpits. Har­ris cap­tures Chani’s com­bi­na­tion of anx­i­ety, sex­ual cu­rios­ity, teenage bore­dom and deep pride in tra­di­tion. She also sets up a fig­ure of comic but se­ri­ous op­po­si­tion in Baruch’s mother – her crude at­tempts to bully Chani pro­vide en­joy­ably icy stand-offs.

Hu­mour abounds, but so do pathos and anger. Chani de­spairs that she will be­come an ex­hausted shell like her end­lessly child­bear­ing mother, and frets that her par­ents will bank­rupt them­selves with the task of mar­ry­ing off eight girls. Baruch, des­tined to train as a rabbi, se­cretly yearns to study at univer­sity.

Har­ris’s eye for sub­ur­ban so­cial mores is wickedly acute, as is her ev­i­dent rel­ish in de­scrib­ing both the sen­sual life and its ab­sence.While per­haps too breezily writ­ten to have taken it fur­ther in the Booker stakes, her book has the po­ten­tial to be that rare thing – a crowd-pleaser about Or­tho­dox Ju­daism. – Guardian News & Me­dia

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