Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: The Hidden of Things by Yael Unterman

The short of it: The Hidden of Things is a warm, funny book with mostly insightful stories that will be enjoyed in particular by Jewish English-Speaking Thirtysomething Emigrant Religious Singles (hereinafter JESTERS) who make up the book's characters, but will also be enjoyed by people who like stories about dating, relationships, and the quest for meaning, and don't mind an occasional clunky bit of prose.

Disclaimers: Yael has been an acquaintance of mine for many years.

Book summary: The Hidden of Things is a series of loosely-connected stories about JESTERS dating, mostly in and around Jerusalem. The stories are set primarily between 1999 and 2002, with a few later stories coming every few years after until the publication date (2014) and one story set in the future (2029). The stories occasionally foray over to England and the US, but they are mostly set in the small areas of Jerusalem in which JESTERS tend to concentrate.

The protagonists are all JESTERS: nearly all female with the occasional male thrown into the mix. They are all on the hunt for a) a mate and b) a meaningful connection to God, the latter of which instantiates as a self-righteous abstinence of physical contact with the other gender and a desire to be more self-sacrificing. The stories describe hilarious or sad dates, internal conflicts with religion and selfishness, religious conundrums so fine as to be bewildering (you may find yourself thinking "first world problems!"), and the casual anti-Arab, pro-Israel, anti-secular, anti-French, and other provincial sentiments that are common to many (but not all) in the JESTER population.

The core group of women have stories that intersect over meals, at apartments, at the zoo, and on an artificial minimalistic theater stage. One story is a series of blog post entries by Emma, the snarkiest of these women and character with whom the writer most clearly identifies. One story is written like a play. One is mostly a dream sequence. One, being written in the future, dabbles in an exaggerated version of today's religious restrictions as it may instantiate with pervasive computing. Mostly, the stories are laments about loneliness, life choices, or reflections during a torah lecture. Many of them touch on the anxieties of living in Israel, away from family and during the Intifada.

Reactions: Yael chose to write what she knows, and it is obvious in many stories that the people and scenes come from her own experience or the experiences of people close to her. She has a keen eye for the absurd. The stories are often funny on paper, but they are even funnier if you have a chance to hear Yael read them aloud.

Her characters have multiple dimensions, to the limited extent that their world provides: they are all machmir Orthodox Jews, bordering on Haredi: worrying about insects that might be hidden in a fresh date or over the slightest amount of skin that might show or the slightest contact they might make with the opposite sex. Their lives are consumed by a search for a mate, the danger of terrorism, and their fear that they are not holy enough. They attend lectures by perfect, male Rabbis, about whom they speak with reverence and who lecture about general principles about how to be good. These lectures are always exactly what the protagonists need to hear when they hear them (these sequences are used as bridges of transformation within the characters).

The book is strong when describing women and their relationships with men. These stories are keen and sensitive, and everyone has their hangups and foibles. The use of interwoven characters that occasionally come together in conversation is excellent; it raises even the lesser stories to a sum greater than the parts.

The book is weak when it ventures out of this territory. The male characters think like types: like how women want or believe males think; I found them one dimensional and unrelatable. Her "feminist" passages are polemics ranting against straw men of her own devising. The two long stories about people becoming ultra-religious - a woman singer born to humanist parents who moves to Israel, and a man who leaves a sheltered Haredi world but ultimately returns - are unconvincing fairy tales; even if they are/were based on true stories, the stories contain little of interest beyond sermons on the emptiness of modern culture and the joy of withdrawing from it (the man leaves his ghetto because he discovers that he is walled off from the world, but he ultimately returns to it). The last story, a science fiction story, was frightfully badly written; bad science fiction, and a bad story.

In my opinion, a good editor should have cut out or down some of the latter stories, cut or massaged a few other sequences, and asked for more of what she does best. The overlapping characters work better than I think even Yael realizes, it seems; more of this would have been welcome. As it stands, if you can forgive the weaker parts (mostly the last few stories), you can really enjoy the bulk of the book: some really great stories and sad/funny characters offering a slice of early twenty-first century expat singles life in Jerusalem.
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