The Innocents – Francesca Segal

Adam Newman and his fiancé Rachel Gilbert are part of ‘Jewish north-west London’ and a community of

…people with whom [Adam’s] life had intersected at an earlier stage and who now resurfaced often enough for him to know a little of their lives, though he did nothing to seek out either the information or the subjects of it. Such was the way in Jewish north-west London – no one ever disappeared.

Rachel’s cousin, Ellie Schneider, never disappeared, she merely moved to New York City, modeled, made a porn film, got kicked out of Columbia and had an affair with a high-profile married man. And now she’s back and everyone in Jewish north-west London is talking about her.

Ellie seems not to care. When she first appears, at Kol Nidre, she’s

…wearing a tuxedo jacket with nothing beneath it and black trousers – trousers! – that clung and shimmered as if she’d been dipped in crude oil.

While her second public appearance, at the Sabahs’ open house, has her arriving late,

…her tight jeans and brown leather jacket, aged and cracking at the elbows, [making] her even more incongruous amid this sea of sequins and velvet than her usual overexposure would have done.

Naturally, she has everyone’s attention, particularly that of Adam.

During their first few meetings, she intrigues and irritates him in equal measure but after an evening at her flat when Ellie asks him ‘What do I have to do to become a nice Jewish girl?’ and confesses to being lonely, Adam finds himself sending his usual evening email love song to Rachel and another specially selected one to Ellie.

The novel then begins to build towards what seems to be inevitable and it’s here that Segal really shows her skill as a writer: what could have been clichéd becomes taut and suspenseful. Just at a moment where you think Adam and Ellie are about to fall, Segal pulls them back. The dance they perform around each other is delicious and something to savour.

Segal’s also very good at explaining – without being patronising or over-bearing – the rituals of the Jewish community, helping us to understand, without feeling alienated. She’s also chosen her subject matter well – family, marriage, affairs, work are things we can all relate to, regardless of culture.

The Innocents has already won the Jewish Book Award and the Costa First Novel prize. Tomorrow, Segal finds out whether she’s won the Costa Book of the Year. She would be a worthy winner.

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