The year 2002 stands out in Canada for a sudden flourish of outstanding women’s fictions. The hits just kept on coming: Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson; Lures, by Sue Goyette; Enemy Women, by Paulette Jiles; and Nancy Richler’s sublime Your Mouth is Lovely, a spellbinding romance of the 1905 Russian Revolution that tells of Mariam, a Jewish activist imprisoned in Siberia.
Finally, Richler is back, and with an elegant, ambitious, accomplished new work. The Imposter Bride elaborates Richler’s essential themes: Jewish history, maternal absence, female experience and the significance of the word. It zigzags through time and space, through Eastern and Western Europe and Palestine, and a harrowing century of family history. But it is rooted firmly in Montreal, in the point of view of the child of a Holocaust survivor who seeks knowledge of her missing mother.
Just what that mother has survived is not expressly articulated; the Holocaust is depicted as part of a long, grotesque tradition of anti-Semitic terror. Where Your Mouth is Lovely echoed the tones of Tolstoy, Babel and Brontë, the new novel finds Richler confidently inhabiting her own voice. A native Montrealer, she elucidates a compassionate, complex vision of her beloved community.
It begins with the marriage of Nathan Kramer and one Lily Azerov, a refugee who arrives in Montreal via Palestine in the mid-1940s. A matchmaker has arranged for Lily to marry Nathan’s brother. But Sol takes one look at her and changes his mind. He soon regrets his decision. Too late: Nathan has fallen in love at first sight. He casually – and comically – steps in as groom, a minor shift of fate, after all, for a community whose history has been violently unpredictable.
A local jeweller named Ida crashes the wedding. She hopes that Lily Azerov is a cousin, presumed to have died in the war. As it turns out, the bride is an imposter who has stolen her cousin’s identity. Ida is a woman made brittle by tragedy. Still, she keeps Lily’s secret to herself.
No matter; Lily, the imposter bride, cannot adjust to her new name and new life. She flees Montreal, shortly after giving birth to a girl. As Ruthie grows up, she investigates her mother’s whereabouts and identity. She is guided by three clues: an uncut diamond, a Yiddish notebook and a handful of beautiful rocks received as gifts over the years.
Ruthie’s story moves us through the phases of a blissfully ordinary life that is shaped by her mother’s absence, by her affectionate extended family and by her dawning awareness of her personhood and womanhood. These straightforward chapters alternate with disruptive passages of recent history told from the perspectives of both Lily and the dead girl whose identity she has stolen.
Lily absorbs the stories in the girl’s notebook: memories, dreams and fantasies that take the place of her own. Survivor’s guilt, certainly, but something else as well: the mystical power of the word, how taking a person’s name is a way of taking a person’s life.
The dead girl is the daughter of a diamond cutter in Antwerp. In the notebook, she describes glorious summer vacations at the Krakow home of her cousin Ida. We glimpse the prosperous, cultivated, centuries-old Jewish world that has been destroyed. In addition, Richler considers the effect of shame on groups and individuals.
The human loss Richler records is incalculable. Ruthie’s grandparents are one example. Before emigrating to Montreal, they lose all three of their children in the violence following the Russian Revolution. Her grandfather – a powerful, idealistic man – never recovers. He sits for hours in the park, staring at nothing. One of Ruthie’s teachers – a survivor – cries silently throughout his classes.
Ruthie is accustomed to the peculiarities and pathologies of the older generations; deep, psychological wounds that may ultimately explain her mother’s disappearance. For those of us who are not children of survivors (I’m not), but who have friends who are (I do), and who have wondered (as I have) how a devastated Jewish family moves forward in faith and love and grace, this novel serves as a gut-wrenching education.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer, editor and literary journalist.