Friday, March 01, 2013

Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati

Dancing in the Dark is the debut novel of Robyn Bavati, which originally published in Australia but is just making it to North America in 2013. It's the story of Ditty Cohen, a 12-year-old girl who secretly falls in love with ballet, despite being forbidden to even sign up for it by her Haredi (extremely Orthodox Jewish) parents. The beginning of the story takes place five and a half years later, when Ditty's religious and dance worlds collide, before going back to the start again and following the years that lead that point. 

From the moment I saw its haunting cover and read the summary, I was incredibly excited to pick up Dancing in the Dark, because the concept sounded amazing and I have also been wanting to read more books with Jewish characters. However, as soon as I started the book I realized it might not be a great match, as it began with an unnecessary and overly dramatic prologue, ending with "memories flash before my eyes..." – the ellipse is a direct quote from the ARC.

As it continued the story definitely caught my interest. However, because Ditty started at age 12, she read quite young, even when she got older, which meant the end result was more middle grade than young adult to me. Still, she was complex and interesting, especially when it came to her faith. Unfortunately, sometimes other characters' reactions felt simplistic and lacked the nuance I wanted. In one example, despite there being other Jewish kids at Ditty's ballet school, when somebody asks Ditty what she's getting for Christmas and she says nothing because she's Jewish, they laugh and say everyone gets Christmas presents. Ditty might not have Internet or access to TV, but these other kids certainly do, so it felt like a kinda silly reaction, even though the kids are only 12.

Another reason Dancing in the Dark came across quite young was because some conversations seem like they are there just to tell a message or explain why people have certain beliefs rather than being completely organic. Some examples include an argument between Ditty's father and uncle, or when her father discusses with her sister's husband his favourite Talmud passage for the week, and it just happens to be on conflicting values– I realize if it wasn't something relevant it wouldn't be a part of the novel, but I just didn't want it to be quite so obvious.

That said, there were some really interesting discussions about faith, such as between Ditty's cousin Linda and herself.  Maybe I enjoyed those portions more because Ditty was an active participant, rather than a bystander. Like Intentions by Deborah Heiligman which I read last year, Dancing in the Dark, it was clearly written for readers who know nothing about Judaism. As a Jewish individual, that was probably a huge factor in what made it a bit dull or frustrating to read at times.

Additionally, the conflicts tended to resolve really easily. Like when Ditty needs someone else to walk home her younger siblings, suddenly her eight and a half year old sister is old enough to do it– even though Ditty had been the one walking her home, and even though eight seems awfully young for that to me. There are other examples but they are spoilers so I won't mention them.

Finally, time passes really quickly, the novel starts at age twelve and by 160 pages in it's two and a half years later. There are just brief moments to show time passing, and at times I felt like I was missing bits. I also felt like it was hard to really see Ditty getting older, because there wasn't much in between to show her becoming more mature. The quick pace makes it really easy to read, because there's always lots of action, but it means that there isn't a lot of time to connect with characters.

So that was a lot of thoughts. I really focused on the aspects that disappointed me, because I wanted so badly to love Dancing in the Dark and it just didn't quite succeed for me. That said, I do think it would be great for younger readers, like maybe old MG or young YA level, and perhaps it was the cover the swayed me into thinking it would be more mature than it was. I definitely think there needs to be more young adult featuring Jewish characters, and I hadn't read a YA featuring Haredi characters before. I did enjoy Ditty, she was believable and I found her journey exciting and interesting to follow. Overall, Dancing in the Dark is definitely worth picking up if you're looking for some insight into very Orthodox Judaism, and it's a quick-paced, exciting read with an authentic main character, even though it wasn't quite right for me.

Release Date: February 3rd 2013  Pages: 321  Format: E-galley
Source: NetGalley  Publisher: Flux  Buy It: Book Depository

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