Lizzie's Reviews > Hush

Hush by Eishes Chayil
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Jun 13, 2012

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bookshelves: library, borrowed, e-book, young-adult, nyc, 2014
Read from July 07 to 10, 2014

Well, there was absolutely no way I wasn't going to read this, a YA novel about the social issues of sexual abuse denial in the Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn. While I read it, it reminded me of another book, The Bermudez Triangle , simply in that I was not deeply enjoying it as a novel, but the subject was so damn good I wasn't going to quit til I knew everything it had to say.

I've enjoyed reading novels about Orthodox Judaism (and religion generally) since I was a kid, which is probably originally the fault of Chaim Potok. I've always been curious about the details of maintaining a culturally-specific lifestyle in this very time and place. In recent years I lived near (some maps said in) Borough Park, so the environment of this novel felt both like a foreign country and like one I knew. I lived halfway between the Jewish enclave and the Chinese enclave of Brooklyn, both enormous, and both so fully-saturated that you can go for blocks without seeing any printed English, other than street signage. In my exact area, though, I was mostly surrounded by the previous generation of Italians, who used to run the place and grew somewhat displaced by these insular communities. I'd walk a few avenues, get my hair cut in Chinatown; go the other way, get my sewing supplies in Borough Park. Good pizza was everywhere, though.

So there's two ways to talk about this book: reading-wise and issue-wise. The issues are pretty interesting to start with. The Orthodox community, of course, adheres carefully to values based on history and tradition and gender. The community portrayed here (its accuracy being in the eye of the beholder, I expect) focuses almost exclusively on the purity of reputation, and thus deliberately overlooks dangerous problems in its midst. As communities, sometimes, do. For the one in this book, it is actually a panic over one's family's lasting viability in the marriage market that preoccupies them with reputation at the exclusion of most else. "How will your children ever get married?!"

In the book — this is more or less all spelled out in the description but just in case — Gittel witnesses (view spoiler). The girls do not have a name or a context for the assault; it "isn't something that happens here," and so there is near-universal victim-blaming when any part of the problem is confronted by the adults. For the rest of the time, it is just "hushed" up, and Gittel spends a lot of pain and effort trying to deal with her neighbors' ultimately pretending that her best friend never existed, because it is the easiest way for them to move on. Gittel herself also deals with a bit of what seems like PTSD, haunted by her friend, and traumatized by her thin grasp of sex based on what she witnessed.

The author published the book under a pseudonym, a Hebrew proverb describing a "Woman of Valor." She came out a bit later as Judy Brown, the daughter of a newspaper owner. Similarly to that in the novel, attention to the real-life issue was sparked by a newspaper editorial, and Brooklyn's scandal then focused primarily on the corruption of the D.A., who dealt dishonestly with prosecution of influential rabbinic officials (not dissimilar to cover-ups related to the Catholic church scandal). Last year it blew up further during election season. Most stories that have come out are of young male victims, which is different than the story in the novel, but the resulting intimidation and worry is real, and familiar here.

This is all pretty engrossing. But, I didn't feel the book really nailed it as might be done. This is quite forgivable, for a debut novelist sending out a manifesto raw with feeling, but of course I'd wished for the best. In a way, its point is ready-made at the outset — the situation being fictionalized is obviously an unjust one — and so the book itself sort of meanders around with its weighty burden. For instance, half of the book has a back-and-forth timeline structure, divided between what happened when the girls were nine, and present-day when Gittel is a teenager. Teenaged Gittel is apparently coming to terms with what she knows happened, but backs down from taking it too seriously. Then the book's second half abandons this structure (and some of the unresolved plot threads, such as her police report) entirely for the present, most of which focuses on Gittel's marriage.

Although there are merits to all of this being included, it feels as though it drifts away from the real topic, and starts to feel really overlong. It is interesting culturally (although I have read other books about it before), and in some ways is significant since marriage is the culmination of everything their childhood was structured around. (Marriage and pregnancy are also a pretty surprising topic to cover in a YA novel, but of course, Gittel and her husband are just 18 and 19.) After she is married, Gittel suffers more and more from her repressed anguish until she finally must take action, and that is the direction the story takes in its ending.

But, there were plenty of things I was still concerned about, that I took pretty seriously — Gittel's PTSD symptoms, for instance — that don't get specifically concluded in the end. It may be up for interpretation whether we are getting a complex, unresolved ending, or whether the author is expecting that all resolutions will be folded up in one tempered victory. I'm afraid it's the latter, but that if you're aiming for tough realism, it's not enough.

However, I'm happy for this book to be what it is, and the response is good and interesting. The community knows that it's out there, and has been responding. Voices are good, and in my opinion, just open the way for others to tell their stories more and more perfectly.
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Reading Progress

07/06/2014 marked as: currently-reading
95.0% "End of novel; Author's Note."
07/11/2014 marked as: read
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