The first thing to note about I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits is the publisher, Hogarth, and a little bit of digging reveals this...
The spirit of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's literary imprint the Hogarth Press will be revived on both sides of the Atlantic after Random House announced the launch of a new fiction imprint. Hogarth will launch in summer 2012 and will focus on "contemporary, character rich" publishing. It will publish between eight and 10 books a year in the United States. The UK wing of the imprint will publish a smaller number of titles each year, with the list comprising exclusively of titles published by its US sister.
I certainly didn't know where Hogarth Press had gone, or that it had gone at all and was in need of a revival. The publishing world feels like a very complex mix these days, each publishing house seems to subsume or begat others anew, and it can be hard to know what sits where. But if 'character rich' and 'contemporary' are part of the remit then I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits fulfils on both counts.
After a long summer (well sort of summer, more of the torrential in progress as I write) through which I have rested my reading eyes a little in the face of countless other happy distractions, I was at a bit of a loss as to where to get stuck in agai with new fiction. My finger combed the 'Books In' shelves for something that would spark the enthusiasm and settled on this with words like 'late 1930s'... 'ultra-orthodox Jewish sect' ...'two baby girls adopted'...'quash individuality'...'consumed by questions'. Enough buttons pressed and that cover which it transpires does eventually encompass a significant and very moving moment in the book.
The story begins during the Second World War and in, for me, the more unfamiliar territory of the border between Hungary and Romania. Here lives the persecuted community of insular and profoundly orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews of whom I knew nothing. The concentration camps are a mere sixty miles away and when young Josef's family are brutally murdered while he hides under the table, and this on page ten, I had serious misgivings about whether I really wanted to read on.
Did I have the stomach for more brutality if that might be in store ...I sometimes need to brace myself and be in the rightest of reading moods to cope with atrocities, and countless books seem to arrive these days heralding likewise.
I wonder whether any of you know this sort of reading-sinking-stomach feeling, or whether perhaps it is an age thing. I never used to be like this, but I do find myself evading it rather than confronting it these days.
In fact any subsequent brutality in the book, though equally harrowing to read, is brief, not Nazi-related and nor is it gratuitous, rather adding to the impact of the religious zeal within a family and community setting that I think Anouk Markovits is keen to delineate.
Josef will reappear in the story at a later stage but meanwhile Atara and her adopted sister Mila are the daughters of this particular house, a house ruled by the zealously orthodox Jewish father Zalman Stern whose wife Hannah finds herself consistently pregnant or nursing an ever-increasing family. Constantly in exile and seemingly happy to be so as a necessary aspect of their particular religious heritage, the family eventually settle in Paris whilst others migrate to New York, and it will be the brutality that eventually sows the seed of discontent and rebellion in Atara. Mila meanwhile will pursue the path of dutiful daughter, haunted by the death of her own parents, and the dogmatic insistence of Zalman that she is honour-bound to adhere to the edicts of the religion in order to save their souls.
For me the most revealing aspects of the book were the insights into the world of the Satmar Hasidic Jews. the cleansing rituals, the arranged marriages, the pre-nuptial process, life at the synagogue, the restrictions, and the seemingly over-bearing and frequently blind adherence to their religion. But above all the disturbing and far-reaching impact of the patriarchal dominance that leaves the women disempowered and controlled, and completely dependent on their fertility for acceptance. When Mila's eventual marriage proves barren and the reasons for it eventually become clear, her impulsive solution will have a profound impact down the generations, slowly weakening many apsects of that blind adherence.
A book to home alongside My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok if this subject is of interest to you and a good read even if it isn't.
But tell me...do you struggle with violence in your fiction these days??
I've been there and read it all in my time but suddenly I don't want to any more. I can't believe I might be sanitising and unwittingly censoring my reading in this way... perhaps it will pass.