Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Imposter Bride

Um, so, it's been a year since my last post on this blog.  I suck.  I'm aware.  Despite having read quite a few fantastic books that I loved last year, somehow I never managed to put fingers to keys to write about them.

Well, you may or may not be pleased to know that one of my new year's resolutions is to read 52 books this year.  So I should have plenty of material (although I'm already running a little behind).  And this week I finished a book that tickled me on the inside (not in a gross way) so much that I remembered, from the deep recesses of my mind, that I used to have a book blog.

The book in question is Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride.  After a few days of casually reading it on the bus to work, I suddenly became so hooked that I reverted to my childhood habit of constant reading...not just on the bus and underground, or at home, but also whilst walking from my house to the bus or underground. Which is probably a little more dangerous in London than in rural southern Ontario.

The story might sound a little familiar to Mad Men fans.  A jewish woman in Nazi Poland steals the identity of another jewish woman she finds dead and uses the stolen name, Lily Azerov,  to make her escape to Canada.  Before taking the trip, she's arranges to marry Sol Kramer, a stranger living in Montreal.  Acting on instinct, Sol refuses to marry Lily upon meeting her, and instead she marries his brother, Nathan.  Unable to cope with her grief and her imposter identity, Lily soon abandons Nathan and their baby daughter, Ruth.  Much of the rest of the story is told through Ruth's eyes.  She receives cryptic, periodic communication from her missing mother in the form of beautiful rocks sent from various locations around Canada, but longs for more information, although she grows up in a loving family that is eager to make up for the absence of her mother.  The novel also tells the tragedies of Bella, Nathan's mother, who suffers the death of three of her children and is emotionally abandoned by her husband, and Ida Pearl, the cousin of the original Lily Azerov, who raises her sulky teenaged daughter after having been exiled to Montreal by her family and having been physically abandoned by her husband for another family.

The early chapters of the book are dominated by the sense of hollowness Lily feels after losing everything, including her own name, in the wake of the Holocaust.  That Lily feels something about her decision to name on her identity is clear, and that she feels some sense of responsibility to the original Lily Azerov is also clear.  But exactly what she feels (guilt, relief, sorrow, pragmatism?) is left up to our imagination.  Instead, what Richler makes obvious is the cripling, unbearable burden of living in the wake of horror and loss.  Lily is not only unable to exist as a wife and mother, she seems unable to function as a human being.  She forgets to eat, cook, or shop for food; she is unable to sleep during regular hours, and can barely hold a conversation with her new family.

Richler is gifted with the ability to create vivd, evocative pictures with simple, seemingly effortless descriptions.  Descriptions of cold, faceless streets in Montreal, windsept, rainy northern lakes of Ontario, and sun-tinged, pink stones of Jerusalem let those locations breath with a few sentences. When Sonya, Ida Pearl's other cousin writes to her to remind her of their mutual summer vacations with the original Lily, and tells us that "I lost a summer afternoon heavy with the scent of ripening apriocts, the sound of Mama's voice mingling with the notes of Mrs. Gamulka's piano...I don't know how long I rested there in the dappled shade of that courtyard..." I felt a pained nostalgia for a European, summer memory that was never mine to feel nostalgia for.  

Stone walls, beautiful rocks, and uncut diamonds are littered across the novel, reminding us not only of the strength necessary to survive war and genocide, and the loss of lovers, children, and mothers, but also reminds us of the fragility of strength.  The feebleness and flaws of diamonds are emphasized as much in the story as the hardness.  We are constantly reminded that crumbling under tragedy is just as possible as surviving it, and that survival does not guarantee happiness.

Outside of the cities, stones, and strong women, the novel forces us to consider how someone must live, not only after surviving tragedy and horror, but with the knowledge that they are less loved than they should be.  From husbands and wives, mothers, uncles, and lovers, there just doesn't seem to be enough love to go around in this memorable, heart-breaking book.

Really, it's not as sad as I'm making it sound.