I knew I had to read Felicia Berliner’s debut novel, Shmutz, when I saw that the New York Times called it “a dirty book with a pure heart”. Never mind that I know nothing about ultra-Orthodox Judaism and speak no Yiddish: that description had me hooked! I was thrilled when Allen & Unwin sent me a copy for review.
The story revolves around 18 year old Raizl, who lives in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. All her life, she has expected to find love the way that her parents (and everyone else she knows) did – by arranged marriage to a suitable Hasidic man.
But Raizl has a secret, one that she has kept from everyone in her life – even her therapist only knows half-truths and parts of the story. Raizl is addicted to internet pornography.
Never mind that computers and internet are forbidden, never mind that she’s never so much as touched a man she’s not related to. Raizl straddles two worlds, that of her upbringing and religion, and the online world of flesh and lust.
Shmutz did not go at all the way I expected. It defies the all the beats of the typical sheltered-girl-casts-off-the-shackles story. I was also surprised by the early ending, right before the story comes to a full resolution – like an interrupted orgasm.
I think I got by okay with my barely-there knowledge of Judaism, though I’ll concede that some familiarity with Yiddish would have enriched the reading experience. I didn’t realise until I turned the last page of Shmutz that there was a whole would’ve-been-helpful glossary in the back. Be sure to take a look at that if you’re in the same boat!
For all of its unpredictability, Shmutz still came exactly as described by the New York Times. This is an explicit but not erotic novel about being caught between worlds, the upsides and the downsides of self-discovery. This will be a good one to read and think on if you’ve got a few days off work over the holiday period.
Buy Shmutz on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)