There are some books that are so good, as soon as you finish reading you’re ready to tell the world exactly what you loved about it; the words have been forming in your mind the whole time.
I Am Forbidden may not be one of those books.
It’s a book that you read obsessively—it takes over your thoughts—and quickly—because you have to know what happens, you have to stay with these characters. Yet when you put it down, you don’t know how to explain the book, much less why you loved it.
You will spend months feeling guilty that you haven’t reviewed it yet. You owe it to the author and the publisher to shout from the rooftops why you love this book so much. Yet you will pass it over when you pick up a book to review; you will write about another book, one that is less complicated, that lend itself to ratings and reflections. Not because those other books deserve a quicker review, but because this book is still steeping in your mind, and your thoughts on it are still brewing.
You will feel, after reading the book, as though you understand, now. You may have been raised religiously, even perhaps in a conservative religion. But you may not have understood Orthodox Judaism. It wasn’t just a problem with knowing the customs and religious rites. It was the struggle to understand the feeling: of belonging to a sect like this. The sense of inclusion, of community, that can turn suffocating. But you will understand, somehow, through some alchemy of language, the sense of yearning for things to be so simple. The sense of being tied to your upbringing, your past, your heritage. It’s something, you will realize, no one can run away from—where you come from, who your people are. No matter where you go, you take some small part of this history with you.
When you do force yourself to sit down and try to capture the book, you will struggle from the beginning. What, exactly, was it about? Too many months have passed to pin down the intricate plot. You’ll read and re-read the back-flap copy:
In 1939, five-year-old Josef witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard. He is taken in by a Gentile maid, who raises him as her own son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, whose parents are killed in the wake of Nazi deportations. Josef helps Mila find safety with Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, in whose home Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman’s daughter, Atara. The two girls form a fierce bond, but as they mature, Atara feels trapped by the restraints of Jewish fundamentalism, while Mila embraces her faith and her role as a respected young woman in her community. When Josef returns and chooses Mila to be his bride, she eagerly strives to be an ideal wife, but a desperate choice after ten years of childless marriage threatens to separate her from everything—and everyone—she cherishes.
ANOUK MARKOVITS grew up in France, in an ultra-orthodox Satmar home. She attended a religious seminary in England instead of high school, and left the fold at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to receive a bachelor of science from Columbia University, a master of architecture from Harvard, and a PhD in Romance Studies from Cornell. Translations of I am Forbidden are forthcoming in a dozen countries. Markovits’s first novel, Pur Coton, written in French, was published by Gallimard.
But it’s not just about these people and what happens to them, you’ll argue with yourself. This book builds something more than that.
You will jot down words that begin to scratch at the book’s depth, but you don’t know how to begin organizing them. So you simply list them:
- theme: Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust
- a sweeping story
- spanning four generations and eight decades
- moving from Transylvania to Paris to New York
- theme: Orthodox beliefs and traditions
- poetic, jagged prose – so much pressed between the pages
- intricate portrait of an Orthodox family
- each character is perfectly formed – their motivations, their conflicts
- themes: faith, love, family, community, compromises
- voice crackling with energy, sadness, love
- sometimes sorrowful, always beautiful
You will marvel at Markovits’ way with words. You will wonder if it is because she wrote her last book in French. But you’ll conclude no. It’s not just the way she says something. It’s what she has to say:
“In the forbidden books, the colored words sometimes continued inside her even after she finished reading the story; then Atara wondered whether a secret passageway might link her to the outside world.”
“Was it a selfish heart that dreamt of living her own life?”
“The sky unleashed itself and they whirled as they had as children, arms stretched wide as their tongues searched their lips for the taste of clouds.”
“If she were happy, how could she explain happiness far from her family? If she were unhappy, had not they warned her?”
You will, I think, like this book.