Nancy Richler's Your Mouth is Lovely is a fine example of the type of writing that Rhea Tregebov called for more than a decade ago in "Some Notes on the Story of Esther." Published in the feminist anthology entitled Language in her Eye¨Writing and Gender (1990), Tregebov's essay urges Jewish women writers to write "consciously," to tell their own stories and to let their writing grow to be "an assertion of our difference and a refutation of the otherness imposed upon us." Richler has heeded the call, for the conflicting emotions felt by her female protagonist, a Russian Jew, would mirror those of many parents who feel compelled to equip their child with the details of their heritage.
Such is the motivation behind the correspondence which comprises this story. Miriam, a Jewish woman in her early-twenties, is a neophyte revolutionary convicted of murder during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia, ill and nearing death, she writes letters, as yet unsent, to her illegitimate daughter Hayya. Miriam tells Hayya that the letters are her attempt "to create for you what my own mother denied me. An understanding of who I was, how I lived, how you came to be." Hayya is being raised in Montreal by Bayla, Miriam's step-aunt, for it was Bayla who rescued Hayya from the Russian orphanage she had been taken to the day after Miriam gave birth to her, seven months into the life sentence.
There is much to enjoy and learn in Richler's tale. Her meticulous research into Russian Jewish customs, tales and beliefs and into the significance of Yiddish names is edifying, as is her focus on little known aspects of the Russian Revolution, most notably the contribution of women in the insurrections that led up to it. The impact of such factual richesse is surpassed only by that of Richler's consistently pleasing prose, poetic prose that her first novel Throwaway Angels hints at but seldom attains. Moreover, and in contrast to the almost two-dimensional feel of Angels, this story is textured, rich in metaphor, imagination, precise details and well-delineated real and fictional characters.
"Textured," though somewhat overworked in literary reviews, is an appropriate adjective to use here for at least three reasons. First, fabric and the sewing of it is itself a central metaphor in the story. Tsila, Miriam's step-mother, is a skilled seamstress whose independent thinking and creativity with natural dyes seem pre-ordained by the birthmark on her face¨the "red handprint of the angel that had slapped her before birth." A frivolous expedition in search of blue cashmere saves young Miriam from a raid on a house in Kiev that she shares with other young female subversives. Fellow prisoners wave from the prison windows pieces of red fabric smuggled in to symbolize support and solidarity among members of the revolutionary movement. And a wedding dress of cobalt brocade woven by Tsila becomes a symbol of defiance for Bayla in her struggle to assert herself.
The word "textured" is also an apt description of the novel's unequally layered structure. Each "chapter" begins with a short, one- or two-page "contemporary" letter, dated by month and year from 1911 to 1912. These are followed by longer, dated narratives which begin in 1887, the year in which Miriam was born, and end in 1905, the year in which she was charged and sentenced. The longer letters provide Hayya with a family history. Richler's innovative approach to the epistolary novel adds to the story by creating an envelope effect, as though Miriam is folding the grander family history inside "cover" letters that describe the quotidian minutia of Miriam's miserable existence in prison. The enfolding nature of the novel's structure helps to authenticate the letter-writing process and to emphasize Miriam's ambivalence about ever sending the letters to Hayya. Miriam writes:
... as I put my pen to paper, day by day, week by week, I see only the gaps in what I've written, the distortions, the falseness of trying to impose one version of truth on a life.
But it is the rich and varied "texture" of Richler's writing that a reader of this book can really get wrapped up in. One obvious theme is the tension between ancient myth and practical wisdom, best illustrated in Tsila's relationship with the women of the village. Scoffing at their superstitions and attempts to "trick luck," for instance, she tells Miriam to trust her heart. But Tsila herself is not entirely free of superstitions. Desperate to bear the child of Miriam's father, she sends Miriam on a daily search of the swamp for reeds that are said to enhance fertility.
Richler's incorporation of the meaning of Yiddish names into the story is another source of vibrant colour in the fabric of her text. For instance, at birth, Miriam is initially named "Nechama. For Comfort," but when Henya, her mother, commits suicide the day after Miriam's birth, Nechama is renamed "Miriam" meaning "Bitter Sea"¨"a better name for me anyway" she writes to Hayya. "Hayya" means "life" and it is the birth of Hayya that prompts prison officials to commute Miriam's sentence from death-by-hanging to "life", thereby giving Miriam the time she needs to examine, through the letters to Hayya, the life-choices she has made.
Perhaps the strongest thread in this narrative is that of women writers helping to give a hearing to women whose voices would otherwise have been suppressed and forgotten. That theme is announced early in the book when Miriam as a six-year-old contracts a pneumonia-like illness. Tsila has no recourse but to cut open Miriam's throat to release the mucous that has stolen the child"s voice: "Your daughter will speak, Aaron Lev," she promises Miriam's father, "I will lead her to words" and when Miriam speaks for the first time after the operation, Tsila whispers the quotation from the Song of Songs (4:3) that provides the book's title.
Tsila upholds her promise to Aaron Lev by teaching Miriam the letters and words of the Hebrew alphabet for, as she tells Miriam, "Knowledge will be your mother." She gives Miriam a quill pen and when presented with the gift, Miriam is overcome with the power and exhilaration of writing:
How, then, to explain the sensation I had when I took it in my hand? I held that pen and felt as my own the strength of the wing from which it had been taken. I dipped it in ink and began to write. I am cold, I wrote. Simple words¨how to explain the joy I felt in their expression, the sudden certainty of my own existence that filled me as the words took form under my hand?
The pen becomes Miriam's constant companion and it is with that pen that she is now writing the letters to Hayya.
If I must signal weaknesses, I would cite the use of one or two anachronisms¨"crash course," for instance, and "no kidding." Also one or two spots in which the language was weighed down with unnecessary details, and the occasional tonal discrepancies as when Miriam tends to write a little like a postmodern feminist. But such snags are minor and do not often interfere with the reader's suspension of disbelief.
This poignant novel is grounded in personal and political integrity, in love and respect for one's heritage as well as for the genre, and in a love of language. In her review of Throwaway Angels, Eva Tihanyi faulted Richler's first novel for being "painstakingly sewn together" with its seams showing. In contrast, Your Mouth is Lovely is a nearly seamless epic. ˛