Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

 Life is change, my dear, so we might as well enjoy it, don't you think? (63)

About a month ago I finally placed all the Giller Prize shortlisted books on hold at my library, and hoped to read as many as possible before the prize was announced.  Well, tonight is the big night!  Unfortunately, I did the bandwagon jump too late to receive and read most of the books in anything like enough time to accomplish that goal. I still plan to read Inside by Alix Ohlin, Will Ferguson's 419, Kim Thúy's Ru, and Russell Wangersky's short story collection Whirl Away as soon as I possibly can, but I did manage to read Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride just under the wire, and am I ever glad I did!  I am hoping that I can make it home from running Erin to dance class in time to watch the televised event on CBC.

From the first scene, I was drawn into the post-war world of Jewish Montréal.  Lily Azerov, a Polish Jew arrives in Montréal and waits on the train platform for the man she has arranged to marry.  Sol Kramer, her fiance, sees her there, but intuitively turns away and without a word, rejects her as his wife.  His brother, Nathan steps in and Lily and Nathan are married.  A sense of mystery surrounds Lily and we find that she is not who she claims to be.  She had stolen the identity of Lily Azerov, along with a journal and a rough diamond, from a dead girl in Europe and her true identity remains submerged. 

At the wedding of Nathan and Lily, Sol begins talking to two strangers, the only two uninvited guests - a woman, Ida Pearl, and her daughter, Elka - who came to see if the newly arrived bride was a member of her missing family.  Ida confirms that Lily is not her cousin of the same name, but clearly she knows more than she is letting on.  There is something sinister about Ida.  Will she tell what she knows?

A year later, Lily leaves their home, and three-month-old daughter under the pretext of running out for some milk.  She disappears.  The family pulls together with love and support to help Nathan raise baby Ruth.  Sol marries Elka who becomes a type of surrogate mother to Ruth, along with her paternal grandmother Bella, and Elka's mother Ida Pearl.  Ruth knows little about her mother, and until her sixth birthday when Lily sends Ruth a gift she has not missed her.

This gift starts Ruth on a path to reassemble the puzzle pieces left behind of her mother's life.  Nina, Ruth's aunt, summarizes a major theme in the novel:
'We can't escape it.  None of us,' Nina said.
'Our need to know where we come from, to connect it to who we are and where we're going.  That's what makes us human, what sets us apart from all the other animals.'
'I thought it was opposing thumbs,' I  said.
'Monkeys also have opposing thumbs, my dear.  It's origins and destiny - our obsession with that.  That's what defines us.' (234)
All of the characters are grieving a part of their lost story, and many have lost either parents or children through war, death or abandonment.  Nancy Richler tells a poignant and powerful tale of loss, separation, grief and isolation.  The legacy of war ripples through each character and their children.  Lily is so adrift without her own identity, without the memories of her family (her dead do not even visit her in dreams) that she isolates herself in her bedroom, unable to function fully in her new life.  Nancy Richler inserts gentle reminders throughout the novel of the pain and grief that surrounds Ruth as a result of the war, and reveals the characters through their reactions, most poignantly of her elementary school teacher, Mr. C. who would stand, silently sobbing in front of the class.  Until each character is able to reconnect with that lost sense of origin they remain searching and incomplete.  When they are ready to face their whole life and their whole past, they become fully realized characters.

The story is part mystery, part family history, part fairy tale.  Ida Pearl is a sort of fairy godmother to Ruth.  She came uninvited to the wedding (I was waiting for her offer up a curse involving a spinning wheel), was blessed with an intuitive nature (she saw Ruth's worst fear without being told), and is the keeper of the secrets.  As Ruth grows up, her curiosity about who her mother was and is continues.  It is, of course, Ida who tells Ruth the first truth about her mother, and gives her the key that unlocks the rest of the story.

This is a sad, but not a depressing story because in combination with the theme of exile, of separation and loneliness are the essentially redeeming characters of Ruth and young Elka who bring energy and continuity.  They carry forward with the best of the preceeding generation.  The elements of mystery and suspicion that prevade the beginning of the book fall away and are replaced with acceptance and compassion.  Ultimately, the sadness in the story is not what remains.  What resonates is the hope and optimism of moving forward, of moving on, of honouring and remembering with love and respect.

This paragraph, a description of the daily after-dinner walk Ruth and her father would take home from Sol and Elka's home is a favourite, and is so evocative of Canadian childhood.  I think I can feel my own father's mittened hand in mine as I read this:
When I thought about that walk  it was always winter.  In reality, of course, it was often spring, summer or fall, and the nights were variously warm, cold, rainy or windy, but what remained in my mind, what rose to the surface of all the blended memoires of those nightly walks home was one cold winter night, a night so cold that the bones around my eyes ached, and so still that the only sound was the squeak of snow beneath our boots, and so peaceful that the only thing that pressed on me was my father's mittened hand holding my own. (182)

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane

After reading Good Behaviour by Molly Keane earlier this month, I was thrilled to see that my library has most of Molly Keane's books in its collection.  I lost no time in putting them all on hold.   I was happy to jump directly into Devoted Ladies when it arrived last week.  There is nothing so satisfying as finding a new author to love!
Devoted Ladies is the story of a small cast of very badly behaved characters.  The story begins at a party in the flat of Sylvester, a jaded thirty year old writer and playwright who refuses to be involved in anyone else's business except if he can make it worse.  To Jessica, Sylvester has "a nameless quality which was Sylvester's power over others."  This domination and subservience between each character is the main thematic thrust of the novel.

 To the party come Jessica and Jane, a couple for only six months, who appear not to have anything in common beyone their relationship.  Jane is an alcoholic American and "genuine in nothing.  [Sylvester] believed even her complete stupidity was partly a pose of mind." (7)  Jane's tagline is "Oh, darling - fix me a brandy and soda, I feel horrible," or a variation thereof, which is all we hear from Jane for the first many pages.  Jessica, on the other hand, is the one in control.  She is keen, alert, and lives in her head.  From the beginning she is likened to an animal in her ruthless destruction of those she has loved.

In her friendships with men as well as with women Jessica spent herself so lavishly and so emotinally that soon there was no more she.  She had spent what she was in a sort of dreadful effort towards entire mental contact with the person she loved.  And having reserved no smallest ledge of herself for herself, no foothold for the last secret feet of her mind, she would retreat in anger and despair from her friendships.  Then cruelly, disdainfully and despitefully she would speak against such a one as she had loved.
Her dreary enthusiasms were tolerated by her friends for the sake of those moments when, her lips curled back from her teeth like a dog, saliva in their corners and hysteria in her eyes she would tell and tell and tell of that past moment in her life; with pitiless mimicry and sure malice breaking the one who had shared it with her on the wheel of her words, on the wheel of her own despair. (9)
Sylvester can see that the violence in their relationship is heading down a dangerous road, but he feigns disinterest and positions himself in his chosen role as passive observer.  Even when his old friend, the aptly named George Playfair expresses an interest in Jane, Sylvester does not hint to him that she is involved with Jessica, but rather encourages him to pursue Jane.  He is not as passive an observer as he pretends to be; Sylvester is, in fact, a catalyst for all the action that happens in the story. 
How [Sylvester] adored to see an old woman really well made up and really well dressed. It was as exciting to him as the flight of a bird. White hair, a silver dress and pearls - the loveliest piece of decoration. She was queen of all the jewelled fishes in his green aquarium. So he saw his party now a little distorted as though seen through water - or, clearer still, gin - they were poised as though hung on threads - like those fish sold outside Lords (and other places too, of course). Yes, they thought themselves free of his aquarium and of their own lives, never perceiving the threads of their movements were gathered up and hitched to some reel of fate or accident that held them prisoners in its devices or, more terrible, in its lack of device, proportion or purpose.
We then move with Sylvester to Ireland where he stays with his cousins Hester and Piggy while working on his latest writing project.  Jane and Jessica, and their "nasty" (read: gay) manservant Albert, crash land with great violence on this quiet home after taking up George Playfair on his suggestion that they visit him in Ireland.  All the characters are all together and the story begins in earnest.  The cracks in all the relationships shatter as the subservient attempt to break free.  Keane cleverly pits characters against each other, and creates perfect foils - especially Jessica and Piggy as those who gave their all to their relationships.  But how they react is in perfect keeping with their position as a dominant or a subservient in their relationship.

Mary Nesta ('Molly') Keane (Mrs Robert Keane)
by John Swannell
Iris print, 1983
15 1/2 in. x 19 3/8 in. (395 mm x 492 mm)
Given by John Swannell, 1998
NPG x87599
Molly Keane is such an enjoyable writer to read.  Her prose is tight and direct without being abrupt, and her sarcasm and wit is in evidence on every page.  She is not above poking fun at herself, as here, after Sylvester finds himself thinking nostalgiac and poetic thoughts about the landscape of his childhood:
Such thoughts were rude and fit only for some hysterical Irish novelist writing her seventy thousand words through which the cry of hounds reverberates continuously: where masters of hounds are handsome and eligible men and desirable young girls over-ride hounds continually, seeing brilliant hunts on incredible three-year-olds: and all - after even the hardest day - are capable of strong emotion at night.
 And later, when Jane receives a gift of books, including one of Molly Keane's own titles, Young Entry.  She uses an acerbic tone of derision and dismissal in mocking the books that is really very funny.  I love an author who can turn that black humour around on herself.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

2 a.m. insomnia and none in the stack of half-perused books on the floor by my bed would suffice. Off I trundled to scour the shelves for something that would make being awake at such an hour a joy rather than an ordeal.

Tucked between the half-forgotten thrift shop finds from last spring was Good Behaviour by Molly Keane.  Oh, good!  Something to make me glad to be awake!  Secrets, lies, betrayals, isolation, disinterest, jealousy, infidelity, ridicule, impatience, money worries, humiliation, death, seclusion, injury, name-calling, pity... I was riveted from the first page.  Told in the first person, a challenging point of view to pull off, Molly Keane creates a complex character who, although unlikeable, is eventually understandable.

Molly Keane

We begin at the end, as the narrator, Aroon St. Charles is in charge of her dying mother (to say "caring for" would be inaccurate!).  An eminently unlikeable character, cruel and domineering, and untrust-worthy, we wonder... "How did she become such a nasty piece of work?"  She admits that she too is confused about how it is that things have gone so badly.
All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives.  I have lived for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.  I have given them so much, I have given them everything, all I know how to give - Papa, Hubert, Richard, Mummie.  At fifty-seven my brain is fairly bright, brighter than ever I sometimes think, and I have a cast-iron memory.  If I look back beyond any shadow into the uncertainties and glories of our youth, perhaps I shall understand more about what became of us.
The rest of the novel is Aroon recounting her life story.

The world in which Aroon grew into an unloved and unattractive girl was devoid of any mentor for a healthy emotional life.  Her beautiful mother is pathologically incapable of emotion, pouring her energies into her "preposterous and curiously hideous" paintings, that Aroon describes as "angular, airified shapes in a graveyard atmosphere, unimaginably ugly," and, into gardening.  She appears to take no pleasure in anything other than her own company, and even food is of no interest to her.  Aroon's father is an irresponsible philanderer who spends all his time at hunting and fishing.  Her brother and his friend use her for their amusement.  The rug is constantly being pulled out from under her just as she thinks she has gotten a toe-hold on some one's affections.  Either that, or she is receiving unwanted attentions from those whom she distains (the family solicitor, and the comical Uncle Ulick) which make her feel even worse.

Into her sad childhood comes Mrs. Brock, a jolly governess full of amusing stories and sympathy for the children.  Her attempts to soften the hard edges of life in the St. Charles home, and the home of her future friend Richard, are all rebuffed, either in life, or in posthumous ridicule and rejection.  Love and caring cannot thrive in such an environment.

Aroon becomes a sympathetic character over the course of the book as we see her innocence and naivete being abused and misunderstood. As Aroon suffers blow after blow, and loss of self-esteem she cannot face reality.  Incapable of seeing the truth that has always been hidden behind good behaviour she overlooks what is clear to the reader regarding the truth of all the relationships around her.  Her mother and father are incapacitated by reality and brush it aside, just as they ignore the mounting bills, and turn away from grief.  Aroon deludes herself about how others feel about her so desirous of being loved is she.  Aroon has been lied to and manipulated so much that she is powerless within the family, ranking even lower than the household servants.  This is what she has learned, and this is what she becomes.

This novel is a psychological excavation of Aroon St. Charles's life, a reminder that we are all who we are because of the forces that have worked on us through our lives, and how we manage those challenges.  In the guise of good behaviour many crimes are committed against Aroon who is stunted through neglect, ridicule and open distain.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Wheels Within Wheels by Dervla Murphy

Having never read any of Dervla Murphy's writing before picking up her autobiography at the library last week, I only knew that she wrote travel stories about cycling in far-flung parts of the earth.

If I were to have read about her epic cycling journeys before reading this autobiography first, I suspect I would have spent a lot of time wondering: "How on earth does such a woman exist!  And what kind of a life brought her to the point of contemplating this lifestyle?"  I wonder if the writing of this autobiography was in part an answer to such questions she no doubt received after becoming well known as "the mad Irishwoman on the bicycle."

Reading Wheels Within Wheels is like being transported to the Irish countryside in the 1930s and 1940s; Dervla Murphy is capable of so vividly rendering people and place I feel as though I know what she describes.  I could easily picture all the scenes she recounts, although she follows the advice given to every learner of writing: "Show, don't tell." and she does this with aplomb.

Born in 1931, in Lismore, Ireland, the only child of her librarian father and invalid mother.  She depicts a childhood of permissive rambling and cycling around the countryside.  Dervla Murphy paints portraits of some of the most significant figures in her childhood - her grandparents, various servants, teachers, and friendships. Her ability to self-educate especially when her opportunity for schooling was taken away is astounding, and yet she never seems to fall into the trap of either bravado or self-pity.  Her writing style is smooth, apparently effortless, and eminently readable.

When she was removed from school and retained at home as her mother's carer she reveals a disintegration in her lifestyle both shocking and terrible to read.  She suffers greatly, but tells her story with an unvarnished honesty we have come to trust.  When both of her parents are gone and she has gained her freedom she emerges from her seclusion as a butterfly from a cocoon.  She struggles to suppress her socially inappropriate exuberance at the death of her mother.

Dervla Murphy is a deft storyteller, an honest writer, a kindred spirit and a mentor.  I will be searching out her other writing as soon as possible.