In front of the couch was a table laid with fruit and hard-boiled eggs. Her husband picked up a plum and rolled it in the palm of his hand. His name was Nathan and she had known him for a week. It was his brother, Sol, she had been meant to marry, a man she had corresponded with but hadn’t met, who had caught one glimpse of her as she disembarked at the station and decided he wouldn’t have her. Lily watched Nathan roll the plum in his hand and wondered what his brother had seen in her that made him turn away.
That set-up is not quite as strange as it reads. Lily is a Jewish refugee from the war, who made her way to Palestine where the marriage of convenience was brokered. Sol had been given “a small payment, a token of appreciation, nothing lavish, just enough to give him a start he’d been needing”. Canada did have a disgraceful limit on Jewish refugees at the time (Richler does not make a big point of this) and this was one way around it.
Nathan, by nature an adapter not an originator, was more than willing to step into the gap his brother Sol left when the original groom took one look at Lily and decided she was “damaged goods…a broken life, a frightened woman, a marriage that would bind him — however briefly — to grief.”
Lily Azerov Kramer is not whom she said she was. She had stolen that name and identity from a body in a village in Poland in 1944 (“nothing went unused” is Richler’s description of what took place then):
And here are some of the things that that someone acquired when she stole the identity of a girl she hadn’t known at all in life: the name, first of all, Lily Azerov; the identity card; a pair of woollen socks; a notebook filled with dreams and other scribblings; a single frosted stone.
The final establishing element at the wedding occurs as the ritual bride/groom handkerchief dance takes place and Sol sits down at a table with a pair of guests who, it turns out, were not invited:
“It won’t last,” said a voice beside him, a voice that emanated from the throat of a woman but had the weight and the gravity of a man’s.
Sol turned and saw that he had joined the table of a guest he didn’t recognize, a middle-aged woman who either was or thought herself to be a cut above the rest of the guests. Her dress, a blue satin, was more formal than those of the other women, her bearing more upright and severe. Her hair was pulled back from a pale, wide brow and lacquered into a shell. She had not left her table the entire evening and had placed a restraining hand on the arm of the teenage girl beside her — her daugther, Sol assumed — every time the girl tried to rise to join the dancing.
That woman is Ida Pearl, a relative of the real Lily, who had been alerted to the wedding by another relative in Palestine whom the imposter Lily had visited while she was there (trying to fix some background to her adopted identity). And, just to keep the plot tidy, the teenaged daughter, Elka, will marry Sol.
All of this is told by a narrator we don’t know yet, but soon will. Ida is right, the marriage lasts only about a year. Nathan and imposter Lily do have a daughter, Ruth; Lily abandons her and Nathan when she is three months old, thoughtfully leaving a shelf of prepared formula in the fridge to tide them over until other arrangements are made. Ruth is raised by her single father, Uncle Sol and Aunt Elka, grandma Bella and Ida, who becomes a friend of the family — Ruth, now in her senior years, is the book’s narrator.
One final establishing event sets the main part of The Imposter Bride in motion: on Ruth’s sixth birthday (April 27, 1953) a package arrives containing a beautiful rock and a cryptic note: South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind. Ruth’s mother has re-opened contact — other rocks will arrive in the future.
Regular visitors who have been following reviews of this year’s Giller longlist may be wondering at this point whether they have not read several versions of this review before — I certainly am feeling that I have written a number. This year’s Real Jury seems to have decided that “children of trauma” will be the theme of the 2012 prize. I have now read 10 of the 13 and it has been the central story line in five of the 10 — jacket blurbs promise it will also be at the core of two of the remaining three. It is also a prominent secondary theme in the three other longlist novels that I have read and featured in a couple of the stories in both longlisted story collections.
While I have nothing against books featuring abandoned or traumatized children, a steady diet is not my idea of rewarding reading and it is influencing my critical reaction. The Imposter Bride may well be quite a good book but I am afraid I can no longer tell since so many elements of it kept overlapping with others I have read recently. (If you do decide to read it, there are some very good set pieces and secondary story lines that I have not addressed here.)
So, yes, I am very grumpy with the 2012 Real Jury at this point. Last year’s longlist (you can find linked reviews to all of them in the sidebar) was exceptional: a wide variety of styles, approaches and stories, all of which had something to recommend them. Overall, it made for a great reading experience. This year, the Jury seems determined to give us 13 variations on a theme — and as much as the theme might have some appeal, it is starting to wear.
I’ll conclude with an apology to author Nancy Richler. This novel is probably quite a bit better than this review indicates — I’m afraid the frequent echoes that it raised during my reading effected my judgment so much that I can’t adequately evaluate the novel itself. I know that if it wasn’t for the Shadow Giller project I would have set it aside for later when I could have given it a fairer read and assessment.