Review: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman gives Dina Rabinovitch the small-town blues

by Naomi Alderman
272pp, Viking, £12.99

Hendon, unlike say, Jerusalem, has not inspired great literary endeavour. London's chronicler, Dickens, mentions the northwest suburb once, in Oliver Twist, when Bill Sykes runs away; while Zadie Smith's intricate portrait of suburban life, White Teeth, features Hendon merely as a signpost. No more. In Naomi Alderman's debut novel, Hendon is very much present; even the names of schools and shops are unchanged. It's a place where homes become synagogues: "Semi-detached houses, glued together and scooped out. I've never understood why they did that: presumably it must be cheaper than building something new," one of the characters, Ronit, muses plaintively, after returning from New York.

Disobedience is the latest example of a London-inspired genre, the novel as spicy neighbourhood tell-all. The city's sprawl fosters diversity: strangers don't make eye contact and the consequent anonymity makes it a place of pockets. Hendon epitomises London facelessness; for a social group requiring a blank slate on which to set up their own amenities, it can't be bettered. Disobedience, according to its considerable advance publicity, blows the cover of just such a group. It tells the tale of a love triangle in the orthodox Jewish population of Hendon, one of the closer-knit squares on the A-Z patchwork.

It is part of Alderman's schtick to pepper her novel with Hebrew terms, but she scatters words many Jews, let alone non-Jews, won't recognise, and mostly for no good narrative reason, so rendering the language lifeless. The plot, also, sits too heavily on the book. A world-class Jewish sage, hailing from Hendon, has died. The rabbi's daughter, Ronit, motherless and lesbian, returns from her lapsed existence in New York to reclaim her mother's candlesticks. Her father's chosen successor, Dovid, is now married to the girl Ronit experimented with as a teenager.

Alderman has produced some stirring short stories, elliptical and graceful, but this feels like writing-by-numbers. She understands the mechanics of storytelling - each chapter ends leaving the reader wanting to know what happens next - but there is no real life here. In that Hendon way of which Ronit complains, she's taken a bit of social history, cobbled it together with some thoughts on Jewish lore, and superimposed the novel structure over the whole.

This might have worked, only novels need character. None of the personalities here gets beyond the two-dimensional. Her characters are flattened by the dead weight of meaning each is expected to bear; like the interpretation-heavy dreams with which she punctuates this story, nobody in this novel leaves any room for misunderstanding. Ronit of the lesbian leanings has an affair with her male, married boss in New York. When he fires her because his wife has found out, this nouveau New Yorker doesn't phone the sex discrimination lawyers, but meekly accepts the job loss. The message: watch out, girls, it isn't all rosy when you throw over the shackles of home. Dovid, suffocated by his black and white learning, has migraines that cause him to see the world in shards of colour. His wife, Esti, nearly lands an interesting plotline - in this pregnancy-centred community, she is unable to conceive - but Alderman fails to explore this strand, preferring a more sensation-seeking narrative. Storytelling is wielded like a blunt instrument, hammering home the message that small communities foster small-mindedness. Well, what else is new?

· Dina Rabinovitch is writing a book on life with breast cancer


Dina Rabinovitch

The GuardianTramp

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