Problems of keeping in step

Madeleine Kingsley predicts acclaim for a young writer.


Chains of Sand By Jemma Wayne
Legend Press, £9.99

Reviewed by Madeleine Kingsley

'You won't have to worry about me when there is another war," Udi reassures his mother, Batia, in Jemma Wayne's rich new novel. Udi, wounded while serving in Gaza, wants her blessing for his move away from Israel to London. But Batia has fought enough of her own battles to doubt sweet dreams of refuge. "Life," she warns her son, "is a war".

This is a quintessentially Jewish story that is about soul as much soldiery; about belonging, identity and a place to call home.

The plot turns on two young men travelling in opposite directions. Udi hopes to flourish outside Israel where his dark, Iraqi skin is a handicap among his own people. Daniel, by contrast, prepares to join the IDF. He's out of love with his high-flying, banking existence and the "watered-down, damp squib nonsense" that reduces London for him.

Israel, in Daniel's eyes, is "tripping over itself with newness, dynamism, fire." Not so for his North London parents and sister Gaby, who argue vehemently - and logically -- against Daniel's decision. "Israel is the ghettoisation of the Jewish people," his mother fulminates. "You've been raised in a multicultural world, Daniel. Why do you want to cut yourself off from that, for the sake of what?"

Despite our defining laws and ethics, each one of us personally has to probe the question: "How Jewish do I mean to be?" With a keen eye and literary grace, Wayne counts the infinitely variable and contradictory ways. Daniel keeps kosher, but eschews the kipah. His sister Gaby marries out but, at her cool, unschmaltzy wedding, wells up with sudden desire for tradition's chair and handkerchief.

Through Daniel's Sabra artist girlfriend Orli and Udi's sister Avigail, Wayne explores the price paid by two strong women who dare to challenge prejudice and extremism. The set-piece on an Egged bus in Jerusalem, where Avigail is set upon by Charedi men for refusing to sit separately at the back, shocks as darkly as Udi's explosive encounter with the four-year-old Palestinian child, Farah.

Jemma Wayne drives her narrative with intelligent design, freeing her realistic cast of characters to juggle religious truths and frailties. Ambitious in scope, and evocative in every detail, from skimpy red thong to pro-Hizbollah graffiti, Chains of Sand is a soaring read and a call to reflect.

Jemma Wayne defies the myth that second-time novelists often disappoint: her debut, After Before, was nominated for the Bailey's Women Prize. Chains of Sand promises more, and I predict laurels aplenty as this young writer's future in fiction unfolds.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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