Chani and Baruch are about to get married. In her heavy, layered dress, the sweat drips down the hollow of her back and collects in pools under her arms. She has never been kissed, never held a boy’s hand. As for Baruch, such is his panic that he cannot even remember Chani’s face, though they had been on three or four dates. The wedding night is within sight, a cause of anxiety for them both, each knowing nothing of the other or much about the act itself.
The Rebbetzin, meanwhile, is pregnant at 44 and knows that this child will be her last. One evening she awakes to find the bed wet and sits up in a spasm of panic. She calls upon her husband, Chaim, to do something and yet he is impotent in the moment, frozen by the scene playing out in front of him. The best he can do for his wife is cover her hair as she is carried off on a stretcher into the waiting ambulance.
Set in the ultra-Orthodox enclaves of northwest London, Eve Harris’s “The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann” takes these scenes as its starting point, ambitiously shifting between perspectives and generations and examining a cloistered world with a judgmental outsiders’ eye. “Chani Kaufmann” was recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (though not shortlisted) and sold out its initial print run in the United Kingdom. The attention has been a surprise to many not only due to the narrowness of the subject but since its publisher, Sandstone Press, is a relatively small outfit based in Scotland.
“The writing is fresh and bold and the author has shone a light on an unfamiliar corner of life and experience,” Eilidh Smith of Sandstone Press told The Forward, when asked why they would pick up and publish a novel about London’s Haredim. “The terrific subplot of the Rabbi’s wife and her struggle is another element which really leapt out for us, making this book, which was already far more than a boy meets girl story, quite dazzling — endings and beginnings and the bit in-between.