Friday, November 28, 2014

Abandonment and Devotion

Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori


Esty is 19 and unmarried, and that's practically an "old maid" in Jerusalem's Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community. However, the reason she hasn't agreed to marry anyone is that she knows the Haredi life is not for her. Once she's married, she might be trapped forever. Gathering up all her courage, she leaves her whole life and family behind. What she finds is a world that contradicts everything her community ever taught her, not the least of which is about falling in love.

Miriam Drori's debut novel investigates the world of those who leave the Haredi community, from the viewpoint of one young woman making her escape into the secular world. Very few non-Jews know much about this phenomenon, if anything. Since the Haredi world is based on theirs being the only true way, obviously they would prefer not to advertise those who leave their fold. Of course, women living in this world are far more oppressed than the men are, so the story of a young woman leaving makes an even more fascinating subject for a novel. In this, Drori has chosen the basis of her story very wisely, since it will surely interest many people.

Drori also seems to have done good homework here in investigating the "underground railroad" for those Haredi wanting to escape. Because of my background with non-profit organizations in the field of religious freedom and pluralism, I happen to know about groups assisting such people, many of whom succeed in making a different life for themselves as part of the greater Israeli society. Drori shows how different the two groups are, and correctly emphasizes the fact the people working for these organizations strictly forbid their volunteers to pressure someone into leaving Haredi society. More importantly, for those who find the change too difficult to cope with, the option to go back is always open to them. However, that is usually only from the side of the person who leaves; often, when someone gets out, their Haredi family will mourn them as if they'd died rather than chance being cast out by their society or shamed. While this doesn't happen to Esty, Drori nicely incorporates this into her story. This is probably the reason for the title of this book, since Esty's family are willing to take her back, and her personal struggle becomes more complicated because of it.

Together with this, Drori introduces Mark, a young immigrant from England, which is also the birthplace of Esty's mother. Her chance encounter with him on the day she leaves her home is what helps her contact someone on the "outside" she heard could help her. His small act of kindness of giving her his cell phone to use is the first contradiction Esty experiences. Up until then, she believed what her teachers said - that all secular Israelis were mean and selfish. After this brief meeting, Mark can't forget Esty, so Drori brings them together by total chance. While this effectively sets up the basic plot for a love story, it was slightly too coincidental for my taste, despite its essential necessity. This is also the reason why Drori needed to focus not solely on Esty, but also delve into Mark's life, which she does using a third person narrative.

In my experience, this point of view can be a problem since it often distances the readers from the characters, because it is less personal than the first person mechanic is. Of course, the problem with first person is the narrowness of the point of view, and I believe Drori probably felt the story would be less effective if she didn't incorporate the actions and feelings of both of these two characters. In any case, Drori does make a valiant attempt to get us closer to both of them. However, she does this with very easygoing writing style, which I found a bit too casual for the story. By this, I mean there are a few places in the book where the reader will feel they are just about to look into the hearts and souls of these two characters, but then the focus changes or the chapter ends and that moment passes. Had Drori used a more poetic style of language, she might have overcome this problem.

I also noticed that at the end of her chapters, Drori likes to hint at something important to come. While foreshadowing is an effective literary tool, in this instance it made the story feel less fluid than it could have been. Because of this, while both Esty and Mark are very likable characters and the situation is one that has great potential, it feels like Drori held a little too much back, which prevented us from falling in love with them. At the same time, I also think Drori fell into the trap of telling us this story, in places where she clearly has the ability to show it to us.

All told, this is a sweet book, and a nice little love story placed in a situation that isn't often found in novels. Drori has a good eye for finding a unique twist to the usual "boy meets girl" plot, and I feel her willingness to go down that road less traveled by. With these as her strengths, if Drori can learn how to become more fearless in letting the emotional floodgates break open in her writing, she could go on to produce some very powerful work. Because of this, in all honesty, I have to rate this book only two and a half stars out of five, but I truly hope that her next work will deserve much more (and I really do believe she can achieve this)!

"Neither Here Nor There" by Miriam Drori published by Crooked Cat Publishing, released May 14, 2014 is available on Kindle from Amazon, or in paperback from Barnes & Noble, the Book Depository, or at an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for giving me a copy of this book for review.

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