Life & Culture

Jay Rayner: the novel that took me by surprise


Almost 20 years ago, my then literary agent asked me a simple question. What, he said, did I want to write about? A previous novel of mine had failed to find a publisher, and I needed to get back to work. ''I want to write about Jews in Britain,'' I replied, spontaneously. ''But not the intellectual kind.''

The result, a novel called Day of Atonement - first published in 1998 and now published in eBook for the very first time - took me by surprise. That said, it didn't surprise me anywhere near as much as it did my late mother.

Claire Rayner was a devout atheist. She ended up as president of the British Humanist Association and nurtured a lifelong suspicion of organised religion, especially the one into which she'd been born. She may have seemed like the ultimate Jewish mother, the agony aunt as problem maven, but she fought shy of the community. And yet, in the story of Mal Jones and Solly Princeton, two kids who meet down the side of a shul on Rosh Hashanah and who go on to found a world-beating restaurant and hotel empire, I had written a detailed portrait of Anglo Jewry from the 1960s to the 1990s; one stinking of chicken fat, sodden with Yiddishkeit and splattered with references to the Jewish Chronicle. ''Where the hell did that come from?'' she said.

It was a good question. Mostly, it was Claire's fault. As a 10-year-old I had moved both house and school and ended up with no friends. Desperate to find me a social life, my parents packed me off to Shemesh, a summer camp for kids run by Reform Synagogues Youth in the bulge and heave of the Dorset countryside. There were activity programmes, Friday night suppers and concerted efforts by the youth workers to make sure we all copped off with each other. I returned with a tight circle of just 200 exclusively Jewish friends. Claire might not have been in the community, but I now was. For years my Saturday nights moved between the great Becky stations of the cross: from Edgware to Stanmore; from Stanmore to Hendon.

This was my reality, but the world I found in Anglo-Jewish fiction rarely reflected that suburban culture of aspiration and belonging and domesticity. The writers were fantastic; you could not argue with the likes of Bernice Rubens and the brilliant Howard Jacobson. But to that point their characters were, for the most part, angst-ridden intellectuals afloat on the seas of the 20th century. I wanted to write about a different type of Jewishness, the one I had, despite my mother's best efforts, grown up with. Philip Roth may have expressed doubts over his novel Portnoy's Complaint. He may have given the impression it was too much of a vaudeville act to be taken seriously, but I loved its comfort with the domestic American-Jewish idiom, the sort that Woody Allen did so well in his early films before he got serious. I wanted a bit of that over here.

And so, Day of Atonement: Solly has a machine for making quick chicken soup; Mal has the brains to turn it into a business. Together they take on the world, their story of rise and fall narrated by Mal in flashback as he prepares to observe Yom Kippur for the first time in years. Curiously, it was published a full year before I was appointed restaurant critic for The Observer, but there's no doubting that this is a high-calorie foodie novel. It even included my late Great Aunt Muriel's killer recipe for chicken soup.

All novels are a product of their times, this one especially so. Apart from being what I hope is a romp with a beating emotional heart, a reading of it also says much about the current standing of Britain's Jewish community. Because I'm not sure it would be possible to write such a book now. It exists in a pre-9/11 world; in a comparative state of innocence, before these new flames engulfed the Middle East and the most ancient of hatreds broke their shackles and were given houseroom by the establishment in the mainstream.

It's in no way sweet or innocent. Day of Atonement is sodden with politics, and had to be. Mal and Solly had to be in shul when the Yom Kippur war broke out. They had to watch the events of the raid on Entebbe unravel on TV. Mal was a 1980s buccaneering businessman; of course he would meet Margaret Thatcher.

Likewise, the end of the Cold War, the growth in Holocaust historiography and the fight for the return of Jewish property embedded within the former Eastern Bloc could not be ignored. I had spent the early 1990s as a reporter covering many of these legal and political battles. When I wrote the book in 1997 it made sense to me that Solly, once his fortune had been made, should become embroiled in these campaigns; that he should both embrace a religious orthodoxy and turn to criminal methods to secure retribution that were rather less so.

All of this, however, was driven by the characters of my two suburban-lads-made-good. What would they have made of that post-9/11 world? It would, I think, have challenged their certainties, left them rootless and confused and desperate. Certainly it would have made Day of Atonement an entirely different story.

But that's the great thing about a novel: it exists within its own parameters and nothing can change that. My characters would indeed have had to confront the realities of the 21st century, but they didn't have to do so on my watch.

In any case I left them coping with other things: a business scandal, a set of friendships in tatters and a High Holy Day that needed observing. That, I think, was more than enough.

'Day of Atonement' by Jay Rayner will be free to download for Rosh Hashanah (from sundown on September 13, for two days), and will then cost £2.99. For your free download or to buy the Kindle version, click here.

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