I enjoyed Naomi Alderman’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning feminist dystopian novel The Power and I have recently read her 2006 debut ‘Disobedience’ which won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and Orange Award for New Writers. It tells the story of Ronit Krushka who grew up in a strict Orthodox Jewish community in Hendon in north London and now lives in New York working as a financial analyst having turned her back on her faith and family. She is due to attend a memorial service for her estranged father who was a respected rabbi and it appears that Ronit’s cousin, Dovid, is likely to be his successor. However, when she returns to London, she discovers that Dovid has married Esti, her childhood best friend and former lover.
Inevitably, ‘Disobedience’ caused a fair amount of controversy in its depiction of both Orthodox Judaism and the relationship between Ronit and Esti. While the setting is a very specific one (and a rare one for popular literary fiction), the more general observations about what happens when one person decides to conform to widely held values in the community and another person doesn’t are thoroughly and thoughtfully explored as the complex consequences of those decisions are played out. I also found it particularly refreshing that Dovid is an equally fleshed out character in this scenario, rather than being relegated as a much smaller third wheel alongside the drama of Ronit and Esti reconnecting and confronting their past.
Each chapter is told from Esti’s perspective in the third person followed by Ronit’s in the first person. My copy of the book included an interview with Alderman where she says that she deliberately writes chapters with cliffhanger endings much like television episodes. This certainly helps propel the novel along as it can feel like a stretched out short story at times in terms of pace, but it does allow room for more character nuance too.
This is an excellent debut novel with a vividly drawn setting. I am looking forward to reading Alderman’s second novel ‘The Lessons’ about a group of students at Oxford University and I also want to watch last year’s film adaptation of ‘Disobedience’ starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams to see how it compares with the book.