Before I tell you about this book, I need to backtrack a little.
A while back I bought a new Kindle which allowed me once again to read as much as I wanted to. I filled it with books I already had purchased, free ebooks and friends’ books, from crime and realistic fiction to sci-fi to dystopic novels to fantasy and magical realism.
I was reading the whole Asimov Foundation world again, from the Robots to the Foundation series, and was loving it but didn’t want to risk getting over-asimoved so I looked up other good stuff too. One of the ones that was sold to me by the world of literature as one of the greatest sci-fi/dystopic novels of all times was the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. What a disappointment that was. To sum up how I felt about it perfectly, here’s a link to a review written by Kate. I hope she doesn’t mind if I borrow her summation of the book here, for those who don’t know it:
«Extremist Judeo-Christian beliefs have won America’s culture war. Now women have no rights. They are slaves to men and the biblical, patriarchal society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of one of these enslaved women.»
The Handmaid’s Tale feels wrong on so many levels, though how could you (how could I) disagree with what she is trying to convey? The injustice of a patriarchal, overly moralistic (and therefore almost certainly hypocritical) society, made more anguishing by the fact that no men in the Handmaid’s tale are redeemable, no men help right the situation, and no men care. The nightmare world she depicts feels contrived and unrealistic.
Soon after I saw that the blogger I have followed for many years, on and off according to my time, and whom I knew for delighting me with her beautiful writing, had published a book and for a low enough price on kindle that I could actually afford it.
My expectations were exceeded.
The book is called The Yeshiva Girl and I borrow from the description of the book on Goodreads:
YESHIVA GIRL is IZZY’s story. She is a fifteen year old Long Island girl who has never fit in at her liberal Jewish day school, but when her father drags her to the Orthodox Yeshiva across the Island, she’s conflicted. She doesn’t trust her father or his newly religious behaviors, but the principal of the yeshiva is not as rigid as she expects him to be, and the new synagogue the family attends has its benefits too. The problem is, all of this is a scrim to hide her father’s escalating problems at work. He has been accused once again of inappropriate sexual conduct with one of his young female students. And Izzy believes that the accusations are true, and just the beginning of the real story of who her father is.
Can you see the connections with the Handmaid’s Tale? Remove the fiction of it being set in the future, and the themes are all there.
Well, if that book is hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi novels, this should be hailed as a great novel too. The themes and the ambition of social message the Handmaid’s Tale were aiming for, are perfectly fulfilled here.
Yet here, on top, the writing is clean, effective, beautifully interspersed with humour and, to borrow from another reviewer, filled with tension and menace at every turn. So much so that as a reader you keep relaxing, sympathetic (not pitying!) to the novel’s heroine and wanting to immerse yourself in her life, and then that menace creeps up and you fear for her, feel for her, feel threatened yourself. The tension builds up slowly throughout the book but never annoyingly, quite the contrary: you are happy to read about her crushes, her friends, her interactions with the teachers, her parents and grandparents.
Her relationships are real. Monsters are not monsters, they are people you love, and have fun with, and admire, then hate, want to murder, feel rage against. THAT is real. Good pals let you down, people you love are imperfect, YOU are imperfect. All throughout, even those like me who know very very little about Jewish culture, but may know a lot about abuse, neglect, dirty thoughts, fun, happiness, all merged into one moment in time, are intrigued and it’s very easily and pleasantly laid out for you: it never feels alien or exotic, it is immediately familiar (like the characters, so instantly well portrayed and defined).
The fact that this story’s context is an orthodox Jewish community is merely incidental, and enriching for those who know little about it: her friends, her family, her teachers could be my friends, my family, my teachers.
Throughout I have highlighted bits of writing where the author reaches peaks of poetry and/or fine humour. I gobbled up this book in a ridiculous amount of time, and really hope Izzy ends up doing well and having a great life, because she is a hero and we love her and I would love to read more about her. I will certainly want to read whatever else Rachel Mankowitz decides to gift us with.