Anouk Markovits’ English-language debut, I Am Forbidden, spans from the 1940s to 2012, but the changing times have little effect on the novel’s characters. As members of the Satmar, an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect that rejects innovation and mingling with non-Jews, they are barely touched by the world events Markowits casually mentions, like the assassination of Martin Luther King and the fall of the Twin Towers. That leaves her free to focus on an intimate look at how individuals struggle to balance faith and desire.
The novel primarily follows Mila, whose parents were killed while fleeing deportation during the Holocaust. Told that her parents’ souls will be protected and that they will eventually be resurrected if she properly keeps the faith, Mila never has any aspirations beyond being the ideal Hasidic woman. She wants nothing more than to maintain a household for her scholar husband and have plenty of children.
Markovits grew up in a Satmar home in France, and broke away at 19 to avoid an arranged marriage. That background lends an autobiographical quality to Atara, a character who takes a similar path. It’s a shame the book delves into her story so little. She’s there as a force to try to challenge Mila early on, and then she disappears until the end of the book, leaving much of her intervening story untold. She somehow goes from being homeless to a filmmaker who can afford two homes. She offers a tantalizing tale of a woman both liberated and pained by the loss of her community and her inability to do more for those who might also want to escape. At times, Mila’s tale of suffering drags over her inability to have children and her attempts to find answers in holy texts. In those chapters, a different perspective would have been refreshing.
Markovits’ personal experiences allow for an honest look at an insular community. She writes lovingly of the smells and sounds of a Hasidic household even as she points out its problems, like women who feel compelled to keep having children even as their health fails. She doesn’t paint the faithful as zealots, and her most religious characters are still plagued by conflict. They recognize that sometimes the secular world has answers, and they accept some things as miracles, while recognizing other supposed miracles as fabricated excuses. I Am Forbidden is a work of fiction, but it feels as personal as a diary, a written chronicle of years of hopes and doubts.