Sister Crazy is Emma Richler's first book and she begins where most good (and she is very good) fiction writers do, close to home, digging deep into the lived experience of childhood. This is riskier business for her than for most writers because some of her territory overlaps with that of the most trenchant and seriously comic novelist this country has yet produced, Mordecai Richler, her father.
Anyone who has read Saint Urbain's Horseman, Joshua, Then and Now and the children's series of Jacob Two-Two books has already met some fairly close relatives to Emma Richler's Weiss family û a mechanically maladroit father with unruly hair and rumpled clothes who writes for a living, cares passionately about professional sports and classic movies, smokes small cigars, drinks single malt scotch, jokes with his children, and adores his wife, a beautiful former model who inspires awe with uncanny, conjuring abilities as gardener, cook, mum û and their handful of unusually bright, perceptive children who are obsessive and impulsive in various artistically anarchical ways. So why read her? Emma Richler's characters may be familiar but her point of view is fresh and her book is funny, smart and startling. She may be her father's daughter (and that's no bad thing) but Emma Richler is definitely and defiantly an accomplished writer in her own right.
Like her creator, Jemima (Jem) Weiss is the middle of five children. She has two older brothers û Ben and Jude û a younger sister, Harriet, and a younger brother, Gus. Jem's voice is one not often heard in fiction these days, the voice of the sibling most enmeshed within a family's collective life û the one who collects and recollects in her consciousness the responses of all the others to all the rules, rituals, celebrations, shared experiences that knit them together and set them apart. Because dad is Jewish and conflicted, mum Protestant and calming, daughters nun-influenced products of convent schools, eldest son a musical and bookish child of Gothic sensibility, and everybody has been uprooted from England and transplanted to the father's home town of Montreal, life among the Weiss's is as chock-a-block with competing colours, tastes, flavours, myths, legends, spiritual longings and emotional resonances as, say, a pawnshop or delicatessan window. Faced with competing claims, Jem finds refuge in kinship with her brother Jude:
"Jude and I are only fifteen months apart, and in spite of ourselves, I guess, we have a twin mentality, which time and distance cannot take away. . . . I have doubts about many things but I am absolutely sure that I was born out of love, despite my affinity for wartime.
Jude and I were steeped in World War II, although we were born some fifteen years after it ended. Knowing about the war gave me a sense of distinction, as if I, too, had suffered and overcome, emerging with my own badge of courage. I knew it as a . . . world in bold focus. I was there and Jude was with me. . . . But what do I know about war? I crave the old me. Now I miss things like decision and certainty, beginnings and endings. In grown-up life, there are few demarcations. It is a great battlefield with constantly shifting fronts, that's how I see it. Where, for instance, do I end and Jude begin? When does childhood end?"
Unfocussed by adulthood, unable to create a sense of her grown-up self as bold and courageous as she was as a child, separated from Jude who has become an actual war correspondent and from the rest of her family who have made lives for themselves in Canada, Jem lives alone in London, sifts through memories, and watches old films. In a couple of the most poignant of her many memorable lines, Jem says, "I have just seen a film which I think is pretty important viewing if you are inclined toward a love encounter with a person who is not a member of your family. Most people are, including some nuns I have known." The film is Claude Lelouch's Un homme et une femme from 1966 and it elicits a series of flashbacks to Ben's and Jude's adolescent girlfriends and then to the ways the parents love one another before segueing to a meditation on her own "date with Jude" after eight months of separation.
"I have had to tell Jude over a crackling telephone line that I am not in great shape, that I am taking medication for a little while and will soon have a holiday in hospital just to see if it helps, that's all, not for long or anything, and I am checking in there myself, no handcuffs and jackets tied up the back, so don't worry about it, where are you taking me tonight?
I don't tell him that I have been playing with knives, that I have been making observations about their capacity to draw blood and etch fine lines on sensitive areas of the body without actually causing death. This would make Jude very crazy and speechless and jumpy and he doesn't really need to know. He doesn't need to know this also because I don't believe this is the real reason I need a holiday in hospital. There's another thing going on and it has to do with movies. I have an obsession at the moment with films involving love situations not involving a family member."
Sister Crazy is aptly titled û mischievously for anyone who catches the veiled reference to St. Francis's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon." Jem is a slasher, a self-mutilator, and Emma Richler brings her torments to light as an accumulating darkness. This book is tightly written as stand-up comedy and so unusually structured as a sequence of seven monologues that Knopf simply labels it as "fiction" and leaves it up to readers to decide if it's a novel or linked stories. Because of the intricate arrangements between pieces and the fulness of the world they bring into being, I'm not hesitant to say it's a novel and a fine one. But it is theatrical û in the best sense. The punctuation is scored more for the ear than they eye and it really ought to be sounded out inside the head or read aloud. Reading it too quickly has led more than one reviewer to become confused about the writing and the editing: both are impeccable.
After training as an actor at New York's Circle in the Square, Emma Richler spent most of the past two decades working in the UK in theatre, film, television drama and on BBC radio. This has given her a wonderful vocal range and great timing. She's also seen enough to realize that although she knows infinitely more about everything than her father's generation ever did, almost everything that matters is infinitely harder to understand than anyone ever told her it was going to be. That's more insight than we get from many writers but she digs deeper and shows readers just how obdurately livable the world remains despite the great darkness at the heart of Jem's experience. Wow! û this is some debut, the best first novel about family life this reader has encountered since Catherine Bush's Minus Time in 1993. ò