Originally intended to be a “Why It Will Win” post, this has now morphed into a review that swings to the other side, offering a few humble opinions of why the title didn’t make the Shortlist.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman
A Novel by Eve Harris
2013 /350 pages
I tried my very best to enjoy The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris. Upon reading the novel’s description, I thought that it would provide a fascinating glimpse into a stringent and unfamiliar world. As it turned out, while the story itself was well intended, I am unclear as to why this was included among the 2013 Longlisted.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman follows 19-year old Chani Kaufman, who lives in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in London. Chani is soon to marry a young man who is essentially a stranger to her. It’s difficult to imagine committing oneself to someone when you’ve never so much as shared a kiss, but this is what the young bride faces. She and her bridegroom come together despite the misgivings of the young man’s family, in all the thrill and excitement that you might expect from an arranged marriage. That is to say, it wasn’t either.
While the people of Harris’ novel are interesting and unlike those I have encountered before, I must confess that the plot meandered. I felt stuck. I wanted more to happen. I would have thoroughly enjoyed an emotional drill-down of customs and ultra-conservative traditions. Alas, what The Marrying of Chani Kaufman offers is more subdued. As the story unfolds the relationship of Chani and her intended, Baruch, there are glimmers that they have their own aspirations. I was pleased to see a bit of a fire behind Chani’s eyes, even in the midst of a repressive way of life. It was there, buried beneath rules and the fear of gossip. Unfortunately, Chani’s simmer never boiled over. I was left waiting for her to discover her own truths.
In her world, people did not fall in love. They were chaperoned into marriage. They met, they married and then they had children. And somewhere along the line; they got to know each other. (The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, Nook p.90)
Beyond the pending relationship (and relations) of Chani and Baruch were the tribulations of Rebbetzen Zilberman (Rivka) and her husband, the Rabbi Chaim. In relation to Chani, Rivka’s role was that of providing instruction on how to be a dutiful Jewish wife. The irony here is that Rivka, having suffered her own tragedies, had several questions of her own. More often than not, I actually found this storyline more interesting than that of Chani. There was depth and history behind the relationship of Rivka and Chaim, and I felt empathy for her. I found her character to be real, with a sharp sincerity that many of the others lacked.
Overall, my experience with Booker nominees is that the stories often have an edge. I recall several that I read in 2012 (even a few that I did not particularly like), that left a mark. For me, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was a perfectly nice read, but it just didn’t beg to be picked up. At the novel’s close, I found myself wishing the characters well, but didn’t long to return to their stories.