“The girl was dead. Can you steal from the dead?”
If you were fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust, would you? Wouldn’t you?
Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride begins with the arrival in Montreal of a mail-order refugee bride, Lily Azerov, survivor of the Holocaust in Europe and fresh off a failed stint in Mandatory Palestine. She is there to marry Sol Kramer, the son of a button sorter, but at their first meeting, Sol rejects her and she is quickly claimed by his brother, Nathan.
It’s clear from the beginning that this can’t be built to last. There are too many holes in Lily’s story, from her reticence to speak about her past, to the fact that she shares a name with the long-lost cousin of another Montreal family, to an uncut diamond that she attempts to have polished, and a Yiddish journal that she claims to have written. But did she? Something doesn’t add up.
Before long she flees Montreal, leaving her baby daughter, Ruth, in the protective arms of a loving extended family. For the next thirty-five years Ruth is left to grow up under the watchful eyes of her withdrawn and embarrassed father, numerous aunts and uncles, and, most importantly, her two grandmothers, who both know more than they are letting on about Lily’s checkered past and the real story behind the abandonment of her infant child.
The Imposter Bride is a delicate riddle. Alternating between the events surrounding Lily’s sudden departure and the life of Ruth, we are presented with an ever more complicated series of clues. We are left to decipher fact from fiction, although unraveling Lily’s stories is not easy. Was her father really a smuggler between Poland and Russia? Did she really spend time on Cyprus with a British officer? Do the sands of the Sinai Desert really “sing” because of the quartz in the crushed rocks? Each line she speaks is both vague but believable, plausible and doubtful.
But beyond Lily’s tale-telling lies Ruth’s desperate search for meaning. Her journey to discovering the truth takes most of the book, and her adolescent impulses that drove her at the beginning of the story are replaced towards the end with her own maternal sensibilities and maturity.
No book ends perfectly, and in the case of The Imposter Bride it’s no different. At a certain point Ruth is going to have to find out what really happened, and after that there’s more than a few pages to go.
But this isn’t a mystery- it’s a book about searching, about truth, about all of us being incomplete and all of us looking for something which is ultimately not going to be as transformative as we’d hope. It’s utterly human.
As Ruth’s aunt Nina reminds her, “We can’t escape it…our need to know where we come from, to connect it to who we are and where we’re going. That’s what makes us human, what sets us apart from all the other animals.”
The Imposter Bride
St. Martin’s Press
Available in paperback February 2013
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