And so to the fairytale of the Man Booker longlist. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is Eve Harris’ first novel. It’s published, not by an imprint of any of the big houses, but by a little press in Scotland, and it’s been longlisted for one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. Anyone who’s ever even tried to write literary fiction has dreamed of winning the Man Booker, and here is Eve Harris, whose novel wasn’t even due to be published until September, counting down the days until the shortlist is announced. All hail to Sandstone Press, where work was done literally overnight to bring the e-book out days after the longlist was announced.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a love story set in the orthodox Jewish community of North London. It’s a peek inside a world I will never experience, and it fascinated me for that. Harris could give Ruth Ozeki a lesson in seamless use of unfamiliar vocabulary – no footnotes, no explanatory asides, just context (and a glossary at the back of the novel, just in case.) It’s an unapologetic, confident approach that works beautifully to draw the reader into the lives and mindsets of the various characters.
Our eponymous heroine is one of eight daughters of a rabbi. Her orthodoxy is unquestionable but her fortune is non-existent and her personality inconveniently independent, and at nineteen, it is time for her to marry. Her wedding is the pivot around which Harris weaves the stories of the other main characters – Barach, her wealthy fiancée; his mother, bothered by the relative poverty of the Kaufmans; the Rebbetzin, to whom Chani’s pre-marital education has been left by Chain’s exhausted, overstretched mother; Barach’s friend Avromi, studying at a secular university and in thrall to the temptations of an unrestricted life. And a matchmaker, and an unworldly father, and all the strict and absolute rules of orthodox Jewry, which give the novel a framework as tight and uncompromising as any fairy tale kingdom.
This is an overwhelmingly positive novel. Characters suffer, yes, and they are unhappy, and bad things happen to good people. But at the end of the day, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is joyful and celebratory. It draws on familiar story arcs – a wicked witch, a wise woman, an innocent knight venturing into a dangerous forest – and a pair of young lovers trying to navigate the world anew. And it raises a smile, which in the earnest and serious world of literary fiction, is a welcome thing.
The longlisting of The Marrying of Chani Kaufman has garnered publicity, readers, intense interest and the foundations for a literary career for Harris. In that sense, she has already won the debut novelist’s greatest prize. May she continue to write happily ever after.