Literary celebrations abounded over the past week. Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which has given rise to many Janeites sporting period costumes and also to this great article in the Guardian – I particularly liked Paula Byrne’s thoughts on Lydia as a proto-feminist icon. Tuesday was Byron’s birthday – the poet, not the burger chain (although I discovered to my horror that when I google Byron the burger chain comes up before the poet).
But my reading this week was predominantly steered by Edith Wharton’s birthday on the 24th. Instead of picking up one of her classic novels, I decided that now was the time to begin The Innocents by Francesca Segal, a reimagining of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in contemporary Jewish Northwest London.
Although I work in a bookshop in the heart of Jewish Northwest London, I kid myself that I have escaped the confines of the community in which I was raised. There was the first seminal moment when I was kicked out of Jewish Sunday school for repeatedly eating Frazzles – it’s just bacon flavour, not actual bacon, little smart arse me protested; I then forwent my Batmitzvah, choosing cello lessons over Hebrew for my after-school activity. Since then, the rebellion has continued in such acts as refusing to go on Israel Tour, moving to East London, marrying a Goy and regularly eating actual bacon, not just Frazzles.
And yet there are some things I have not left behind. Friday Night Dinners are now but once a month, but are still a time for a family get-together and Granny’s chicken soup with matzo balls. And there are the frequent patrons of the bookshop who know me as ‘Georgina’s girl’, or ask me about married life, or tell me how beautiful they hear my wedding dress was – all people who know rather a lot about me, even though, other than to sell them books, I’ve not seen them since I was a child.
I happened to be selling books at a talk Francesca Segal gave a while ago to a largely Jewish Northwest London audience. She talked about how mad it was that someone would phone up her mother just to say she’d seen her (Francesca) in Waitrose. She talked about how everyone is obsessed with everyone else’s news and gossip, how everyone knows of an engagement within seconds. An elderly Jewish lady raised her hand to ask a question: ‘I see you’re wearing a wedding ring. Who is it you’re married to? And what does he do?’ It was absolutely perfect!
While a close-knit community brings with it a wealth of support, it can also seem intensely claustrophobic, and it is with this that Adam Newman – the protagonist of The Innocents – struggles to come to terms.
We meet Adam soon after his engagement to Rachel Gilbert, his girlfriend since Israel Tour, over a decade ago. He is already part of the Gilbert family in everything but name – always coming on their annual holiday to Eilat, a staple at their Friday night dinners, a well-practised chauffeur and errand-runner; he even works for Rachel’s father’s law firm.
Into this perfectly contained little set-up, strides Ellie Schneider in vertiginous heels. She is Rachel’s cousin, a vulnerable, beautiful, very thin, New York model, who – it’s rumoured – has just starred in a porn film. Adam finds himself falling for Ellie, wonders what he’s doing with his life and faces a dilemma: should he escape and break Rachel’s heart, or can he come to terms with such a blinkered existence?
It’s a gripping dilemma, and I raced through the novel, swerving with its twists and turns, desperate to find out what Adam would do next, how the growing mess could all be resolved. I loved seeing Adam be challenged by Ellie again and again, in small acts like walking to the newsagent on her own at night, and staying at a friend’s studio in Bethnal Green:
Bethnal Green was not within Adam’s usual locus of operations. It seemed like somewhere that should be ‘South of the River’, that vague designation that conveyed an essence rather than a geographical truth. Several places felt ‘South of the River’ when they were really north of it – Shoreditch, for example, and her naughty brother Hoxton, places that required satellite navigation and a faint concern over the fate of one’s car during the visit. Like all places that were not contained within the bounds of either Central London or the N-prefixed postal districts, it was out of Adam’s comfort zone.
This perfectly captures Adam’s neurosis, shared by many a Northwest-London Jew. My brothers have never been so anxious as when they came for dinner once when I was living in Stepney. One of them recently refused to meet me for lunch near my flat. (He agreed eventually, after several cross text messages from me, but, he told me, he’d bring his mace.)
While Adam lusts after Ellie for her looks, and her vulnerability makes him long to protect her, he also envies her independence – her freedom to move from New York to Bethnal Green to Paris, to wear the wrong clothes and say the wrong things. His life, in stark contrast, is firmly bounded by what society dictates. Adam tries to inject Ellie’s spirit of freedom into his relationship with Rachel:
He would have to find the means to show Rachel how vital it was that they open their eyes to the rest of the world, for however circumscribed his own horizons might be, Rachel’s were ten times more so. What form this intrepid exploration might take was not yet clear, only that they could, and must attempt it. He had vague thoughts of travel, of literature and of inhabiting broader social circles, knowing all the while that these had always been available to him had he chosen to reach out for them, and in any case did not contain the essence of what it was he craved.
When Adam does try to reach out for them, wanting to go to see an alternative play or visit an art gallery, Rachel firmly resists.
While Rachel is shown to be utterly content in this blinkered, limited world, and Adam, although he struggles, is pretty well adapted to it too, Francesca Segal’s feat is her host of peripheral characters who have found their own alternative ways of living. There’s Adam’s sister Olivia, an eccentric feminist Oxford academic; Ezra, who crops up now and then as an alternative playwright; Nick, the only Jew in the Fens village where he grew up, now an impoverished writer living in Stepney; Ziva, the Holocaust survivor granny, who pockets Bittermints and on Yom Kippur takes a taxi and refuses to fast. Segal shows that being a Northwest London Jew doesn’t have to mean a life like Adam and Rachel’s.
So this isn’t really just a book about Jews. The Innocents is about choosing whether to give up complacency and familiarity in order to venture into the exciting unknown. Adam’s struggle is something with which many people can empathise, for a close-knit community comes in many different guises.
My childhood best friend is Iranian. She knows every other Iranian in London and New York, spent her youth going to very glamorous Iranian parties and yet was filled with terror at the prospect of another Iranian knowing that she ever got drunk, as it was so vital to preserve her ‘reputation’. A great friend from university had a similar experience with her Bengali family and community. Even my ultra-English friends whose families go back to William the Conqueror, experience something of this claustrophobia, in that they all went to the same schools and balls growing up, and are usually god-relatives of each other.
Really, Francesca Segal has achieved something brilliant – The Innocents is an insightful guide to the peculiarities of Jewish Northwest London, told through a story to which anyone can relate.