This award-winning book has been described as “Quentin Tarantino meets Fiddler on the Roof”. It’s not quite like that, but it’s certainly different. Marks for setting a book in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century without it being centred on St Petersburg (I love St Petersburg dearly, but most people didn’t actually live there) and marks for writing a Jewish historical novel which isn’t about the Holocaust. But it’s a bit weird, and there isn’t really much of a plot.
The theme, if there is one, is running away from it all. If you go back a few generations, a lot of families have got a story of Uncle A who ran off (as opposed to emigrating in an orderly, planned kind of way) to America, or Cousin B who ran off to Australia, or someone who mysteriously disappeared from the records and was never spoken about, often leaving a spouse and children behind. And it’s practically always a man. In this book, it’s a woman.
Rather than St Petersburg, we’re in Motal, which (thank you, Wikipedia) was a “shtetl”, a small village with a mainly Jewish population (like Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof), in Belarus. Well, it was in Russian Poland at that time, then in Poland between the wars, then Belarus. And we have a Manchester link here 😉 , because it was the birthplace of Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, who spent three decades living in Manchester. I know that people needed to know that. All books should have Manchester links. Obviously.
Motal has a problem with husbands running off. This is a double problem, partly because it leaves families without their breadwinners, and partly because, under Jewish law, deserted wives are unable to remarry, even after many years, unless their husbands are either definitely known to be dead or else provide a written document of divorce. There are a lot of minor characters, and all the men, for some reason, have double-barrelled first names, so it’s all rather confusing; but the main point is that the husband of one Mende does a runner, and Mende’s sister, one Fanny, decides to run off to find him.
Fanny is regarded as a bit strange anyway, because, as the title of the book indicates, she’s the daughter of a ritual slaughterer (i.e. someone who slaughters animals for food in accordance with the laws about kosher meat), and, unusually for a woman, she learnt the slaughtering trade too. And she gets involved in various adventures with men who’ve all left their villages due to being conscripted into the army. The Russian Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, required different demographic groups to provide a certain number of boys for military service, where, if they weren’t members of the state religion, they’d be put under pressure to convert. Fairly early on, she gets attacked by bandits, and kills them with the ritual slaughter knife which she carries around. Then she gets chased by members of the secret police, who seem to have come out of a Carry On film.
It’s a very strange book, and, as someone who prefers “ordinary” historical fiction, I wouldn’t normally read something like this. However, as I said, it’s very difficult to find books that are set in the Russian Empire but aren’t about aristocrats or revolutionaries in St Petersburg. And it did make some interesting points about wanting to escape life in a small village, especially under the many legal restrictions that the population’s under.
The main problem with it is that anyone who’s not familiar with the background is going to find it incredibly difficult to follow. I do actually like it when books assume that the reader knows the background and don’t patronise me by explaining it. However, I do accept that not everyone has studied Eastern European history and culture, and that the average Anglophone reader may not be familiar with the Pale of Settlement, the Polish partitions, the Khmelnytsky Massacres (big gold star for using the transliterated Ukrainian version of the evil Khmelnytsky’s name, because people sometimes use the Polish version and that really annoys me) or the use of the nickname “Iron Tsar” for Nicholas I. There are also a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew words, and references to some religious practices which are now only followed by ultra-Orthodox communities and which most people will not have come across.
A glossary would have been useful. Give people a chance, eh? Especially in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a lot of people are trying to broaden their reading horizons by choosing some books about different cultures, but I can imagine some readers being rather put off by the use of a lot of terms with which they aren’t familiar, without any explanatory notes. Yes, I know there’s Google, but even so!
Anyway, if you fancy something different, this is certainly different! But it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. If you read it and don’t get something, please let me know, because I absolutely love giving people lectures on 19th century Eastern European history, but I have terrible trouble getting anyone to listen 😁!