Short listed for the Giller Prize, the object of many glowing reviews this novel had lots of promise but somewhere along the way the narrative lost its focus and in the end left me puzzled and dissatisfied. Yet the writing is lovely and there are many beautiful moments expressed in a sensitive, delicate prose. So, the book is worth reading but if I am to remain true to this ‘fiction quest’; this search for the essence of what makes a good story, I have to explore why this novel was an overall disappointment.
The story begins with the introduction of a mysterious woman known by an assumed name, Lily. The time is post World War II the place rural Poland and Lily has stolen the papers and assumed the identity of a young Jewish woman killed near her small village during the confusion and turmoil of the latter days of the war. Lily is obviously suffering from posttraumatic syndrome and is trying to find a way to both heal and survive without friends or relatives. She makes her way to Israel to seek out a cousin of the person whose identity she assumed. Is she feeling guilty? Does she want to be revealed as a fraud? Then through the intervention of a matchmaker she travels to Canada to marry a man she has never seen. Arriving tired, emotionally exhausted and full of misgivings she steps off a train in Montreal appearing haggard and so fatigued that Sol, the intended husband, turns his back on her and declares he can’t go through with the marriage. His brother Nathan however sees an attractiveness lying below the layers of weariness and proposes himself as a substitute and she accepts. Later with a little rest and some nurturing Lily’s health and strength are revived, as is her striking attractiveness although she remains a quiet, reserved; even a secretive person. She and Nathan eventually have a child, Ruth, but Lily abandons the infant and her Canadian husband leaving a brief note saying she is ‘sorry’ with no further explanation.
Nancy Richler creates an interlocking story binding each member of the family to the other through life’s events and the love and affection each have for the other. However, very early on it becomes apparent that this is not the story of the imposter bride but is the story the childhood and youth of the daughter of the imposter bride who addresses the reader using the voice of the first person singular. Lily remains a mystery although various details of her life during the war and of her escape as a refugee are revealed as the novel progresses. To interject bits and pieces of Lily’s life Ms. Richler reverts to the voice of the omniscient narrator who can see into everybody’s thoughts. She accomplishes this in a seamless way which is a clever device although the novel takes on the form of a labyrinth with its many pathways that double back on each other as the reader tries to negotiate the maze.
I think, then, my problem with this novel is that I really wanted to know the story of the imposter bride and what happened to her and where she went and how she coped with her new life and identity in Canada and what mechanisms she used to survive having lost everything, including her immediate family, her culture, her language, her heritage her country not to mention having left behind her infant daughter. Ms. Richler does provide a brief outline almost in sketch form towards the end of the book but we readers are left to imagine the detail. I would have preferred Ms. Richler to do my imagining for me (am I guilty of reader’s sloth?)
It is obvious to me that one of the reasons the author does not follow after Lily is because she wishes to stay in Montreal in the pre Expo 67 days of the 50’s and 60’s. There is a very loving portrait painted of the city that has an intimate small town feel about it. In many ways this reminds me of the writings of Michel Tremblay who has a similar sentimental feeling toward Montreal. I could also mention Ms. Richler’s more famous relative who wrote with obvious affection for Montreal in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz but I am trying to avoid comparison as it is always considered to be odious especially between family members. This is a Montreal divided into crowded quartiers where the streets are gritty and old but still a playground and where children may walk to school or visit friends on their own just as they might do in a small town.
Part of this story is also about living in a Jewish community in this post war period where Jewish people from many countries and backgrounds join Jewish immigrants from previous waves of migration who are already living in Montreal. Sol and Nathan may have been born in Canada but their mother, Ida fled Russia during one of the pogroms and sought asylum in Canada. People such as Lily who have lost their families try to form new families as part of the process of surviving exile and displacement. This is a complex fabric to weave and Ms. Richler manages it expertly.
Some of the best writing in this book is in captured moments that are brushes with poetry such as when Nathan shyly, gently, shares a plum with Lily on their wedding night. Also there are vivid language such as Lily describing her glamorous sister -in -law Nina greeting her friends as, ‘a bird of paradise who happened to land in the midst of a flock of starlings’. The simile is very clever in context as Nina, an actress, was meeting working class young people in post war Tel Aviv, a generation obviously engaged in building a country and not preoccupied by how they looked.
There is much to enjoy in reading this book. My qualms are few but for me, important: I would have liked for it to have more shape or architecture and in the story telling I would have wanted, The Imposter Bride, to remain true to the promise of its title.