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Jane Enkin


Jane Enkin, October 11, 2012

The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler
published by Harper Collins, 2012
While wedding guests, most of whom she has never met, drink schnapps and eat herring in the banquet hall, Lily and her new husband sit alone in a small, hot room, “on either end of the couch on which she assumed they were meant to consummate their marriage.”
This is the opening scene of Nancy Richler's novel The Imposter Bride. The alienation established in the first few pages stays with Lily through the novel. We quickly learn that Lily is a Yiddish speaking refugee, newly arrived in Montreal just after WW II, and that she had come expecting to marry Sol “who had caught one glimpse of her as she disembarked at the station and decided he wouldn't have her.” Sol's brother Nathan asks her to marry him instead, and the novel follows her and the small constellation of people around her.
The characters play games with one another, carefully choosing their moments to reveal small details about their lives and their feelings. Richler does the same in this very consciously constructed novel, choosing not only what the characters understand at any given time, but which important facts from the past are revealed to the reader. I was hooked early on, wondering about the mysteries that were hinted at in the opening pages. Spoiler alert: not every mystery is solved for the reader by the novel's end. Richler chooses to allow her characters some remaining secrets.
Richler is skillful in creating sympathetic portraits. The young, impetuous Sol and caustic, older Ida Pearl, who enter the story as toxic, unappealing people, soon earn our care and respect. Lily, one of the central characters, is the most mysterious, but when, at times, the author tells us her thoughts, we glimpse the complexity of her feelings.
The other central character is Ruth, who we meet as a child and follow through to an epilogue in 2005. I found the passages in which Ruth strives for a typical family life in Jewish Montreal in the 1950's and 1960's the least interesting in the book. The yearning to be normal mattered to her, of course, but as a reader I was waiting to hear more about the exceptional aspects of her life.
The most intriguing parts of the novel belong to a character you might call “the other Lily.” This young woman died during the war, and left behind a notebook. In poetic language, she describes dreams, memories and visions. Her story remains cryptic, yet important to many of the Montreal characters. These passages give Richler the opportunity to write in a very different, evocative and lovely voice.
This is very much a novel about survival. Lily is literally a Holocaust survivor; Bella is a survivor of pogroms from an earlier generation. The other characters all have to find their way to survive losses, humiliations, gaps in their lives.
As part of their survival, these people have to confront the loss of their identities. The successful characters in this novel -- in contrast to the few who fail to thrive -- are the ones who grit their teeth and very consciously construct new identities for themselves. Again, it is Lily who does this in the most literal way as a refugee, but Richler includes many scenes in which characters talk openly about deliberate choices they or others have made to create their sense of self. They are admirably in control of their lives.
For every survivor, there is someone lost. Many of Richler's characters find their lives shaped by the absence of a parent, and many are deeply affected by wartime losses. Lily remembers the way a wedding guest looked at her: “That look –that's how she thought of it...In Europe, in the chaos after the war, on the roads, in the train stations, in the centres they set up. And then in Palestine as well, once she arrived there. But how to explain it to Sol? It was the look of people desperate to find some trace of their dead, following rumours, even the faintest hint of rumours, in the hope...”
Within the Montreal Jewish community, Richler finds many distinct subcultures. Clear differences arise between observant and less observant Jews, between pre-and post war immigrants, between generations. The clearest cultural divide is between those born in Canada and the immigrants, with their rich sensory memories of an idealized childhood Europe. This is true for Bella, with her memories of her sweet small town wedding, and also for the wealthy, urban Ida and Lily. Memory makes them find downtown Montreal cramped and grey, and more spacious residential areas barren. Something that unites many of these characters, however, is an attachment to the Canadian wild landscape– it reaches them, both immigrants and second-generation Canadians, in a way Montreal never does.
The Imposter Bride is a satisfying work for the general reader. I enjoyed reading the novel, although I found parts of it frustrating, and parts banal. I cared about the characters' feelings and their lives, and there are many passages of beautiful, poetic detail.
Richler has made an especially valuable contribution to literature about Canadian Jewish experience, with a portrait of Jewish Montreal over several decades, a window into the lives of several generations of Montrealers, and most of all, with her insights into ways of survival.
The Imposter Bride has been short-listed for the prestigious Canadian award the Giller Book Prize. The winning book will be announced on October 30, 2012.
Biography from the Giller Prize website:
Nancy Richler's short fiction has been published in various American and Canadian literary journals, including Room of One’s Own, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, Another Chicago Magazine and The Journey Prize Anthology. Her first novel, Throwaway Angels, was published in 1996 and was shortlisted for the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel. Her second novel, Your Mouth Is Lovely, won the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for fiction and Italy’s 2004 Adei-Wizo Prize. It has been translated into seven languages. Born in Montreal, Nancy Richler lived for many years in Vancouver but has recently returned to Montreal.

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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