It is a basic human need. “Our need to know where we come from, to connect it to who we are and where we’re going.”
Ruth becomes aware of this need, first, when she is six years old, but that is just the beginning.
It is not, however, the beginning of The Imposter Bride; Nancy Richler’s novel begins with Ruth’s mother.
Readers are introduced to Ruth’s mother on the novel’s first page, but years before she gives birth to Ruth.
Readers meet her as a young woman who has travelled to Montreal in 1947 to marry a man who is meeting her at the train station.
Her arrival, however, precipitates a change of heart; Sol no longer wants to marry her.
(This is not a spoiler, really, as readers learn of these events on the novel’s first two pages.)
And so begins the series of insinuations as people slip into and out of each other’s lives, inviting intimacies and then denying them.
“What man would insinuate himself into a woman’s private moment, as he just had, practically depositing himself onto her lap? The same man, she supposed, who would invite a woman to cross two oceans to marry him and then leave her at the station because she didn’t suit his mood on the day of her arrival.”
So the book does begin with Ruth’s mother arriving in Montreal, but the story does not begin there.
One could say that Ruth’s story begins there (because Sol refuses the marriage and his brother, Nathan, offers marriage instead, and that’s how Nathan becomes Ruth’s father) but Ruth’s story spirals around her mother’s past.
“But now, at this moment, as she felt the reassuring weight of the new journal in her hand, a weight that gave substance to what she had dreamed and imagined, she felt she had arrived at the beginning.”
Except that this beginning for Ruth’s mother? It’s from closer to the middle of the novel, which alternates between chapters told from each perspective, mother and daughter.
Ruth’s mother has felt as though she arrived at the beginning on so many occasions. She no longer knows where she begins.
And readers know from the moment they pick up the novel that the bride is an imposter.
“The name Lily Azerov had seeped into her during the months that she had worn it. It had grown tendrils and found a foothold in the scoured wasteland of her life, taken root. She had answered to that name and only to that name; there was no one left who had known her by any other. And yet she knew it was deception. It was madness.”
Ruth’s mother answered to the name Lily Azerov, but she recognized it as a kind of deception. Or at least in the narrative it seems possible that she viewed it that way. But the lines are blurry.
When Ruth comes of age, she struggles with this kind of definition as well. Where is the line between privacy and deception? She recognizes that her mother may have shared this struggle.
“And I didn’t think of what I was doing as lying. (Maybe my mother hadn’t either.) I thought of it as privacy. That new concept. It wasn’t just the door to my bedroom I was learning to shut that year, but other doors that guarded places deep within myself that were my own and that I didn’t want to share.”
Indeed, a lot of postwar survivors had had to blur the lines, first, in order to survive and, then, in order to deal with the pain of what had been necessary for their survival and the pain of having survived when so many had not.
The kind of loss that Ruth must accept stands in contrast with the overt devastation and grief that many Jewish families suffered during and following WWII; she compares her situation openly with that of her girlfriends’ parents and grandparents and community members, who sometimes behave eccentrically, other times are broken, and often have simply disappeared.
Even in the best of circumstances, there is a subtle kind of damage that has been perpetrated.
“It made me think of the glaciers we had been learning about in school that developed chasms so deep that pieces of them broke off as icebergs that were then too small to resist the current sweeping around the larger glacier. Though they would always be made of the same material as the glacier that spawned them, they floated fast and far away.”
Ruth’s situation is different because although it’s clear that many other people are coping with the aftermath of horrors, nobody else’s mother has willingly left their daughter behind.
“Deeper than that, though, was that she had left me in the first place. That’s what moved her – and me – into a territory set apart from that of other parents and children I knew, because no woman I had ever heard of had left her baby, and especially no woman who had already lost her entire family in Europe.”
(Throughout the novel, images of stability wrestle with vulnerability: from glaciers splitting to diamonds with veins of iron oxide, fossils containing imprints of small creatures, stones with lacy striations. The symbolism is not heavy-handed, but quietly resonates through the story.)
The Imposter Bride is the answer Ruth seeks or, more accurately, it is the process by which Ruth seeks to satisfy that basic human need.
“I sat for a long while with my fingertips resting on the first page of my mother’s notebook, and there was definitely a pulsing coming from it. ”
The pulse that Nancy Richler’s novel emits is a powerful one; it reads easily (like Ami McKay’s The Birth House, Lilian Nattal’s The River Midnight, Donna Morrissey’s Kit’s Law) but the story settles heavily in the reader’s heart.
There is a history of novels set in the not-too-distant past winning this prize; from Half-Blood Blues (set in WWII), to The Sentimentalists and The Time in Between (the Vietnam experience), to Late Nights on Air (set in mid-1970s Yellowknife) and Clara Callan (set in the 1930s). In many of these, the narrative shifts and spirals just as it does in Nancy Richler’s novel; depending on the jurors’ taste, this one just might slip onto the shortlist.
Even beyond the alternating voices (Ruth and her mother), there is a layering and infolding of events in each chapter. Just as in the diary one cannot always tell what is dream and what is the chronicler’s reality, in the narrative, the reader must discern which events truly belong to a character’s past and which are part of their constructed reality. As characters age, different versions of the same stories are relayed; it’s believable, it’s complex.
It fades behind the story, as in the works of Wayne Johnston, Marina Endicott, and Guy Vanderhaeghe.
“The word itself – toit – forced an ending, Lily thought. That final t. There was no hanging vowel or soft consonant that could be rolled or extended, no bridge of any sort to whatever would follow, just that word and the full stop of the mouth that it forced.”
Post-war Montreal’s apartments and shops, brief glimpses into other landscapes.
“It was July when she landed in Halifax, but even in the sunny sparkle of that day she too had seen the darkness of the surrounding landscape – greens so deep they shaded into bluish black, a sea that had more grey than blue. But it was relief to her: the dark palette of the landscape, the cool wash of northern light. Restful…”
Somewhat in the mystery of Ruth’s mother’s identity.
But fundamentally rooted in character, Ruth and her mother, but also Ida, Elka and Bella.
There is no “big secret” upon which the story hangs, but a gradual revealing of self.
You can appreciate what a character means if she has had to understand “the darker shades of good luck”. You have at least one empty notebook, which is gorgeous, so gorgeous that you have not yet been able to write in it. You have a mother, or you want one.
I’m reading my way through the 2012 Giller Prize longlist: have you read this novel, or are you thinking about reading it?