I now know that ‘The Innocents’ is a modern remarking of Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ and that this is one of the main selling points of the novel. However, I did not know this when I was reading the novel, nor have I read Wharton. But nevertheless I loved this novel.
For me, this novel evoked so many powerful images. I may not have had the stereotypical North West London upbringing it describes, but my childhood was – for all my parents’ alternative decisions and my Dad’s utter lack of Jewish-ness – a Jewish one. And this is such a Jewish novel. The characters, their choice of language, of food, their world vision, all of it is thoroughly recognisable to a Western, liberal Jew like me. And more than this, this novel is insightful about this worldview.
Firstly Ziva, the Holocaust-surviving matriarch, who has seen too much pain to care much for social niceties.
“’Obviously my Grandmother’s generation, actually living through what they lived through, didn’t give a shit about napkin rings’…”
Then her daughter, Jaffa, the over-zealous, over-feeding, overbearing daughter of a Holocaust survivor (for clarity, I am in no way looking at my mother here, but I can name plenty of other examples).
“… But for the kids they raised with all their baggage, suburbia feels safe. The trivia matters precisely because it’s trivia. Being free to care about napkin rings is a luxury’.” (Adam on Ziva and Jaffa)
“’The children of survivors are sort of ignored in terms of their impact but I think that’s part of their legacy. Creating a sense of security and of routine and a very tight circle of friends after a generation when the world turned upside down’.” (Olivia on Jaffa).
And then her daughter, Rachel. The first to be born, and give birth to her own children in the same country.
“In north-west London, grandchildren were considered the source of life’s highest pleasure; more, Adam sometimes suspected, even than the children who begat them.”
Then there are wonderful snippets on what it means to be modern, liberal Jew.
“There is a place for you in synagogue if you don’t believe, if you do believe, if you’re not sure or if you only believe during brief moments of turbulence on aeroplanes or in the final five minutes of a football match in which only divine intervention might save you.”
“’FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER’ is one of the most evocative phrases in the vocabulary of any Jew – up there in significance with ‘my son the Doctor’ or ‘my daughter’s wedding’… ruining one’s dinner was a sin punishable by swift but potent guilt-inducement.”
“There was no life event – marriage, birth, parenthood or loss – through which one need ever walk alone. Twenty-five people were always poised to help. The other side of interference was support.”
All this, though interesting to some non-Jews (okay, Goyim) may not be to everyone’s taste.
But I challenge anyone not to fall in love with Lawrence. In a world where the most appealing character often turns out to be fatally flawed, he remains throughout a man of dignity, warmth and valour. He is old fashioned in the right ways and modern in the right ways. There are so many touching passages about him, but this is my favourite:
“[He] wore his habitual Shabbat expression of beatific contentment. He had been to synagogue to mark the transition from week to weekend, from work to rest, and there had greeted the approaching Sabbath with joy, as was customary – as one celebrates the arrival of a Bride. Lawrence had a quiet faith and he liked to reconnect with it like this, once a week. He would come home from shul and stop Rachel wherever she was, placing his hands on her head and blessing her softly, father to daughter.”
Okay, I admit that not much happens in this novel. But at the same time, through such vivid characterisation, everything happens. Everything about this book was wonderful to me. It was a novel I was truly dissapointed to end. I realise it may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you think it might be, I highly recommend you give it a go.