Friday, 22 November 2013

Laura Rereading: 'accept the truth from whomever gives it'

Before re-reading: This book was first published in 2008; I read it on holiday in Scotland in 2009, after loving Notes on a Scandal. I did not have particularly high hopes for it - family sagas, even of the literary variety, are not my favourite type of plot - and I probably wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't already known Zoe Heller was a fantastic writer. However, I ended up being entranced by its observational wit, and particularly interested in Rosa's story.

After re-reading: Although I enjoyed this book the first time I read it, I realised when re-reading how little impression it had made on me, as I remembered almost nothing of the plot and characters. However, this time around, I think I will remember it for much longer; I could feel myself engaging with it much more deeply than I had before, although I'd admired its cleverness.

The Believers was universally acclaimed on its publication as Zoe Heller's most mature and ambitious work, and a chillingly accurate family story. I'm not sure that I like it for those reasons. I'm always a little suspicious of the words 'mature' and 'ambitious' in a book review because, although of course they can be used meaningfully, they too easily translate into 'spans a lot of countries', 'contains a lot of characters' and 'isn't a coming of age tale.' Seeing nothing wrong with a book like Heller's Notes on a Scandal that isn't afraid to be narrow and intense, I don't think ticking off personalities and continents necessarily means that a writer has developed (see my review of Burnt Shadows for further moaning about this.) The Believers is certainly as good as Notes on a Scandal, but it is an entirely different type of novel. Nor is it a novel that I believe is fully described as a 'family story', especially as I am so prejudiced against novels that focus on families - the relationships between the Livitnoffs are caustically and accurately drawn, yes, but so are the relationships between all the characters in this novel, most of whom aren't related. So, having got out of the way why I don't like this novel, I suppose I should move on to why I do.

Rosa Livitnoff, failed socialist revolutionary turned charity worker attempting to turn Orthodox Jew, still remains my favourite character, and although I can see that she might be incredibly irritating in real life, she is the only likeable protagonist in this novel (Karla, her sister, is obviously good and sweet at heart, but I found it difficult to deal with her constant self-flagellation and indecision - although this may be a deliberate irony on Heller's part, given that she seems to be the only character who makes a firm decision by the end). It's Karla who sums up Rosa best: 'Nothing Rosa had ever wanted to do had been significantly at odds with what she knew was right. Even as a little girl, she had been incorruptible… It wasn't that she had lacked the courage for mischief. She simply hadn't seen what fun there was to be had from being bad.' Karla's earlier excruciating memory of a breakfast-time conversation as a child with her father Joel clinches this view of Rosa, as Karla recalls desperately seeking her father's attention while Rosa instinctively knows the right answers to give to his political questions. However, what I like about Rosa isn't her commitment to her left-wing activism, which is failing by the time we meet her, but her continual honesty and self-questioning. Even though her encounter with Orthodox Judaism can occasionally seem patronising, her willingness to learn is genuine. 

The most difficult moments to like Rosa in are those when she is interacting with the members of GirlPower, the club for disadvantaged girls where she works. Insistent that the girls will not dance what she sees as a sexually suggestive routine, she forgets that she's there to help them, not to impose her own set of values, insisting that she won't try and boost their self-esteem until they do something 'estimable'. When she takes them to an anti-war rally, she answers their inevitable questions in didactic vein, and - this is the genius of Heller's writing - you can hear Joel's breakfast quizzes echoing in her words. However, I appreciated these incidents because they so clearly marked Rosa's flaws; her insistence on imposing unrealistically high standards on herself and everyone around her. The brilliant thing is that these flaws are also her strengths; I was glad that she didn't give in and compromise, even though I didn't agree with her line of thought. In comparison to her parents, unable to change, and Karla, too willing to bend, she is a refreshing mixture of self-doubt and self-certainty.

For me, Rosa also best illustrated the themes of the novel, although the joy of such a richly-observed piece is that every reader will find a different character in it who most closely strikes a chord with them. She wants to believe in something, but is too rational to let herself do so. Again, however, it is Karla who sums up the essence of believing, acting as a counterpoint to her more assertive sister. As she finally leaves her miserable marriage (her husband Mike was the most monstrous figure in the novel for me, a passive-aggressive eejit) she hears a busker on the Metro playing 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight': 'a silly novelty number that Karla had always associated with oldies radio stations and kitsch. But now, hearing it sung in this dingy subway car, she was struck by its beauty. How simple and true it seemed! How filled wit the mystery and sadness of life!' Echoing Rosa's spiritual experience upon entering a synagogue for the first time, Karla is the true believer: she allows herself to recognise a truth that is her truth, even if it isn't The Truth. As Lionel Shriver observed in her Telegraph review of this novel, attempts to sum up this novel neatly make it sound terribly banal. That is its joy; it's as messy, inconclusive, and frustrating as real life.

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