Sunday 4 May 2014
Jephte's Daughter by Naomi Ragen
Jephte's Daughter was published in 1989, and was apparently quite controversial in it's portrayal of women and domestic abuse in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. I have to admit that it was the religious aspect of the book that drew me to it; I am non-religious myself so am always fascinated by stories set in societies that are so different from my own. I can't imagine what it would be like to have religion at the centre of your life, to have so many rules to follow, and to be so withdrawn from other beliefs and lifestyles. Batsheva's religion in Jephte's Daughter forms part of her cage; divorce is seriously frowned upon, and being married to a respected scholar like Isaac is seen as the pinnacle of a woman's life anyway. It's hard for her to complain about the loss of intellectual freedom when she isn't expected to think. But although Ragen shows us this downside of such isolated, strict religious communities, she also shows the love Batsheva has for her religion, and the way she wrote about Jewish beliefs and communities was fascinating.
Jephte's Daughter is really a book of two halves. The first half deals with Batsheva's marriage and the domestic abuse, and the second is about what comes after, and the issues she has to face as a consequence. I much preferred the first half of the novel; I felt it was a powerful portrayal of an abusive marriage, and strongly written. I was rooting for Batsheva and had an enormous amount of sympathy for her. Unfortunately the second half was a bit of a let down. Batsheva's journey to regain her confidence was delicately handled, but some plot events felt unrealistic, especially something convenient that happened at the end of the novel (mentioning no plot spoilers). Things fell into place a little too easily, and I felt like this distracted from the power of the first sections.
Still, I've never read anything quite like Jephte's Daughter before. It reminded me in some ways of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; it had similar themes of a woman finding herself and not letting others define her. I would recommend it, and will look out for more books by Ragen in the future.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1989
Edition Read: St Martin's, 2010
Score: 3.5 out of 5