Saturday, January 5, 2013

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits~★★★1/2

Author: Anouk Markovits
Title: I Am Forbidden
Release Date: May 8, 2012
Publisher: Hogarth
Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket: "Sweeping from the Central European countryside just before World War II to Paris to contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I Am Forbidden brings to life four generations of one Satmar family.
In 1939 Transylvania, five-year-old Josef witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard and is rescued by a Gentile maid who raises him as her own son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, after her parents are killed while running to meet the Rebbe they hoped would save them. Josef helps Mila reach Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, in whose home Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman's daughter, Atara. As the two girls mature, Mila's faith intensifies, while her beloved sister discovers a world of books and learning that she cannot ignore. With the rise of communism in Central Europe, the family moves to Paris, to the Marais, where Zalman tries to raise his children apart from the city in which they live. 
When the two girls come of age, Mila marries within the faith, while Atara continues to question fundamentalist doctrine. The different choices the two sisters make force them apart until a dangerous secret threatens to banish them from the only community they've ever known. 
A beautifully crafted, emotionally gripping story of what happens when unwavering love, unyielding law, and centuries of tradition collide, I Am Forbidden announces the arrival of an extraordinary gifted new voice and opens a startling window on a world long closed to most of us, until now."

Taryn's Review: I am sorely lacking of having any knowledge regarding the Jewish faith, so I apologize in advance if I say anything incorrectly. This book focused on a Satmar Hasidic family and their community from 1939-2012. The Yiddish words and Jewish practices used in the book were fascinating to me. It was only after I finished reading the story that I saw the glossary of words in the back pages. That glossary would have helped me tremendously, but luckily I was able to figure out what many of the words meant because of the context they were used in. For anyone who decides to read this book, use the glossary in the back! I wish the publisher would have put the glossary in the front pages of the book.

The first two "books" in this book (the author divided the book into five books) were riveting. I was completely engrossed in the story. Josef had been taken from Florina, the woman who saved him after his family was killed (a haunting scene in the book), and Josef was sent to the U.S. by the respected Jew, Zalman. Zalman also moved his family to Paris, where orphaned Mila and Atara bonded as sisters. As the girls grew older, a division arose when Atara questioned the Jewish faith yet Mila practiced her faith more devoutly in hopes she would be reunited with her deceased family some day. A faint memory of Mila's last encounter with her mother also raised serious questions for Atara regarding the ethics of certain men in power in the Jewish faith.

In the third book, the entire focus and tone of the book shifted. Atara had been a huge character in the book and suddenly she was gone. The story then focused exclusively on Mila and her marriage. During her marriage, Mila made a decision that would haunt her family in the years to come. Mila's deception seemed very out-of-character, especially since she was such a devout Jewish woman. The book spanned from 1939-2012, so there were a lot of years covered in only 300 pages. The way that young Judith handled the news of her grandmother Mila's secret was very tragic and in direct disobedience to the very laws that Judith had practiced piously.

Atara perhaps mirrored the author, Markovits, since the blurb about the author listed that Markovits had been raised in France in a Satmar home. It also said that she left at age nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage, but it didn't say how she left.

After I finished the book, I read a few reviews online and some people were upset that Markovits had opened the book with Zalman having a wet dream. I think the point of this was to show how the human body that God created betrayed the very teachings that Zalman tried so hard to obey. In his sleep Zalman's body did what came naturally to it, but the act was viewed as a sin, even when Zalman had no control over it. Zalman felt shame and guilt for what his body did against his faith's laws and he deduced that he was being  punished for other sins. A poignant scene, in my opinion, since later in the book Zalman attacked Atara and Mila for their breach in obeying the Sabbath. Zalman was not perfect, but he certainly held everyone around him to that standard. I liked that Markovits opened the book by highlighting that Zalman himself was imperfect and flawed. The Rebbe was flawed, Mila was flawed, Atara was flawed, Josef was flawed, and everyone was flawed; how does one rectify this with laws given by a perfect spirit? The struggle to be perfect and to obey the laws of their faith contradicted the imperfectness of the human spirit.

The first two books will stay in my memory. They were perfectly written and Markovits is a talented writer. However, the story lost its pull over me in books III-V. My emotional connection to Mila waned greatly as Mila aged and that affected my enjoyment of the story. An interesting book, I'd say, but whatever magic it held in the first two books was missing from the last half. I'd still pick up an Anouk Markovits book and look forward to other novels by her. This book was her debut novel in English (English is not her first language).

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