29. A book that has been sitting on your shelf for a while: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman
List Progress: 5/30
It is not hyperbole to say that the game “Zombies, Run!” changed my life. When you meet your fiancee through the fandom for a piece of media, that piece of media will always have a special place in your heart, and “Zombies, Run!” definitely earned that spot. Helmed by Naomi Alderman as head writer, the game is a running app with audio recordings told in the second person, leading “you” through various adventures in a survivors’ settlement in the zombie apocalypse. (My future-wife Andrea Klassen also worked as a staff writer for two seasons of the game.) With the game making that big of an impact on me, and me actually getting to meet Alderman a couple times, it’s strange that I had not gotten around to reading one of her books yet. But I have now finished her 2006 debut novel, Disobedience, and I have no idea what I was waiting for. Wow did I ever enjoy this book.
Disobedience takes place in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Britain, where the rabbi Dovid and his wife Esti live. Following the death of the towering leader figure of the community, the Rav, his nephew Dovid is jockeyed into place by the synagogue board to take over the role, with no mind to what it would mean for him and the soft-spoken Esti. At the same time, the Rav’s estranged daughter Ronit is coming back from New York to attend the funeral, despite having turned her back on her Orthodox upbringing years ago. Her presence picks away at histories and silences that stretch back over decades to when, as young rebellious women, Ronit and Esti had been lovers. It’s a set-up rich with tension and drama and at times it feels like the best kind of soap opera, while at others it is a quiet meditation on faith and community.
A lot of the book is openly drawn from Alderman’s own youth in an Orthodox Jewish community and her own struggles with “disobedience”, to the unspoken rules of the community and to the rules of her faith and her God. Each chapter opens with a third-person musing on a passage or concept from the Torah, shifts into a third-person section about either Dovid or Esti, and then switches fonts to move to a first-person section from Ronit’s point of view. This pattern works to move the reader from the conceptual to the communal to the personal with every chapter, and I could imagine an audio adaptation of this book profiting from having two, possibly three, readers to illustrate these shifts. (I am also intrigued to watch the 2017 film adaptation.) This feels like a very thought-out and constructed novel, without losing any of the passion of a personal story.
I feel like I will need some time to work through my feelings about the ending of the novel, but without going into spoilers, it does not leave the characters or the readers with any easy answers, even as it might seem a bit pat. But there’s very little more I would ask of this book. Alderman made me care deeply for these characters, despite and because of all their flaws, and at the end of the day, that’s what I need most. I may not play “Zombies, Run!” anymore, but I will happily consume a lot more of Naomi Alderman’s work.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, absolutely.