Gittel’s best friend Devory hanged herself when they were ten, and now, at seventeen and on the cusp of being married to a proper Jewish boy, Gittel finds horrible guilty memories surfacing. For Gittel believes that the death was her fault: she should’ve told someone about Devory’s increasing refusal to sleep at home, the way her older brother came into her bed on the night Gittel slept over.
But in their intensely Jewish Brooklyn community, to speak of such things is to bring shame upon your family and lower your marriage prospects. But when does the price of keeping one’s reputation become too high to pay?
HUSH, Eishes Chayil’s pseudonymously written debut novel, is an astonishing look into the highs and lows of an incredibly insular community. It will bring you to your knees, laughing and crying, and is the type of book that you’ll want to pass around to everyone, regardless of their age.
Eishes Chayil makes you feel as if you are truly part of Gittel’s Jewish community. You have grown up surrounded by these people, raised on the prejudices and traditions and beliefs of the community. Some of them, such as being suspicious of the goyim and rejecting anything that has to do with them, may seem oddly backwards to many readers; however, HUSH is not merely a direct condemnation of the unchanging traditions that killed Devory, but a celebration also. This is a community where arranged marriages before the age of 20 are still the norm, where men and women are separated and have clearly defined domestic roles...and they like that. Instead of feeling like an outsider, we quickly begin to feel like we are part of Gittel’s world: Eishes Chayil builds up a thoroughly complete Jewish world without resorting to “as you see, reader” explanations.
Devory’s sexual abuse and subsequent suicide are at the core of this book, but the book deals less with the actual event itself than with its emotional aftermath on a bystander who is silenced by her community, unable to carry out justice for her friend. The only way to ensure a powerful emotional reaction to Devory’s and other Jewish children’s sufferings was to provide a sharp contrast to it, which is why most of the book is spent building up the community and culture. Devory’s suffering is mentioned almost like an aside, the way a naïve 10-year-old narrator would reasonably note it, and it is in fact this contrast, this appalling lack of attention paid it by the rest of the community, mirrored in the actual narration, is the best way Eishes Chayil could’ve slammed it into our faces.
And yet within this serious story is room for normal 10-year-old fun and games. The chapters alternate between 10-year-old Gittel and 17/18-year-old Gittel, the older narrator struggling with whether or not she should tell others what happened to Devory, the younger flitting in and out of typical preadolescent adventures. Certainly young Gittel’s spiritedness adds a layer of heartbreaking fun to this commitment-heavy novel, but older characters give us their fair share of laughs too. I nearly burst out laughing in the middle of a crowded hallway at the scenes involving Gittel’s impending marriage. Suffice it to say that, despite the serious topic, HUSH also gives us plenty of things to smile about, scenes that actually make the core issue of sexual abuse all the more powerful.
The last time I remember reading something this intelligently, creatively, and heartwrenchingly written was for a high school summer reading list. The contrast between the rich Jewish community and the horror of the sexual abuse problem accentuates both in the most effective way possible. Full of laughter and tears, HUSH has all the makings of a modern classic, and is the type of book that truly deserves to be talked about, awarded, and recognized for years to come.
Chaim Potok (The Chosen)
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5
Cover discussion: 3 out of 5 - I like that it's relatively simple... but I also wish there was more of the Jewish element on the cover, since it is so much a part of the story.
Walker Books / Sept. 14, 2010 / Hardcover / 368pp. / $16.99
Sent by publisher for review.
Thanks to the generosity of Bloomsbury/Walker Books, I have one copy of Hush to give away to an interested US reader. This book truly is a must-read, which is why I'm so excited for this giveaway. To enter, please fill out the form below. This giveaway is open to US addresses only and ends Friday, October 8, 2010. Also please consider leaving a comment related to the review below. Thanks!