THE question of identity lies at the heart of Montreal author Nancy Richler's beautiful new literary novel, a meticulously rendered character study about Jews in Montreal post-Second World War.
The Imposter Bride, like Richler's 2003 award-winning fiction, Your Mouth Is Lovely, probes this essential question by primarily examining the connectivity of women across generations, oceans and time.
The author, by the way, is distantly related to the late Mordecai Richler.
The women at the core of her narrative are grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters, each one of them harbouring personal grievances and grief, pain and passion. They are all connected by the enigmatic Lily Azerov, who arrives in Montreal from Poland, via Palestine, in 1946.
Lily is a Holocaust survivor. She also is not who she claims to be.
Spurned by the man who promised to marry her upon her arrival in Canada, Lily weds his brother Nathan instead. Nathan is a kind and gentle soul, willing to accept his wife at face value and not to probe too deeply into her past.
Shortly after their marriage, Lily gives birth to Ruth and subsequently disappears from her daughter's and husband's lives.
Ruth is raised with love and tenderness by her father, two formidable grandmothers and a gracious and generous aunt, but spends much of her youth fixated on learning more about her mother.
She understands that her mother was "damaged" by what happened to her during the war, and with an intelligence and insight that belie her years, she understands too that that damage made it impossible for Lily to remain in her daughter's life
"My mother was like that teacup, I had come to think," Ruth muses. "She could not withstand the rigours of the life she was trying to live, a normal life of love, marriage and family. My birth had re-shattered her, and it was a sad story, to be sure, but it was also a story with certain prettiness to it. Pretty things shattered."
This relationship, or lack of one, between a hopeful daughter and a shattered mother, is reminiscent of the relationship at the core of Israeli-Canadian author Edeet Ravel's 2008 novel, Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth, also set in Montreal.
By virtue of their subject matter, both novels dissect the way in which the trauma of the past haunts the present, making everyday tasks like earning a living, preparing a meal and mothering a child completely insurmountable.
In The Imposter Bride, this trauma is exacerbated for Lily by the name that she has stolen and the secret that she harbours. When finally revealed, this secret, to Richler's credit, is not quite what readers will expect.
The novel's ending too holds its own surprises. Although over time Ruth manages to find answers to many of the questions she has about her mother, the answers are not as curative as she had hoped. They do not completely assuage Ruth's sense of abandonment nor fully explain Lily's guilt or pain.
To the end Lily remains a damaged person and Ruth, in her own way, becomes a survivor, too. In Richler's capable hands, however, the story of the life they barely shared is transformed into a hopeful testament to the power of family and memory, and the importance and meaning of one's name.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.
The Imposter Bride
By Nancy Richler
HarperCollins, 358 pages, $30