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April 20, 2012

Nancy Richler returns


Award-winning author Nancy Richler returns to Vancouver later this month for the launch of her third novel, The Imposter Bride.

Born in Montreal, Richler lived in the United States for several years before moving to Vancouver in 1988. She only recently returned to her hometown.

“I have elderly parents living in Montreal,” she told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “They’re at a stage of life where they could use some support and company, so my partner and I decided to relocate to Montreal for a period of time.”

Richler lived in Vancouver for some 25 years, so it is fitting that the city is one of her first promotional stops for her new book, especially since, according to her website, it was here that she began her fiction-writing career.

“Soon after arriving there,” she writes, “I began to notice frequent small articles in the local newspaper about women going missing from a particular area of Vancouver that had a high concentration of drug use and sex trade. The women who were disappearing were sex trade workers, and the articles were generally tucked into the middle of the paper, as if such women did not merit front-page coverage when they were clearly being preyed upon by one or more serial killers. Vancouver’s indifference to this tragedy was the impetus behind Throwaway Angels, my first novel. It was published in 1996 [by Press Gang Publishers], six years before an arrest was made in the case of Vancouver’s missing women.”

Richler followed up this book, which was short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Award, with Your Mouth is Lovely (HarperCollins Canada and Ecco Press, 2002). Winner of the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for fiction and the 2004 Adei Wizo Award (Italy), it takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, centring on the character of Miriam, a young woman who ends up a political prisoner exiled to Siberia after the Russian Revolution. Among her personal tragedies, Miriam’s mother committed suicide soon after Miriam was born, and Miriam had to give up her own daughter at birth.

The Imposter Bride (HarpersCollins Publishers Ltd.) also deals with fractured mother-daughter relationships, conflict (though, in this instance, it’s the Second World War and the period following it) and identity. Taking place in postwar Montreal, the novel begins immediately after the wedding of Nathan Kramer to a woman calling herself Lily Azerov. Her intended groom was actually Nathan’s brother, Sol, who rejected her upon first sight as she disembarked at the train station; Nathan, however, was enamored on first sight. From the book’s title, readers know before turning a page that Lily is not who she claims to be, and this is the mystery that propels the narrative. The first chapter sets the tone for the entire novel and so seamlessly leads into the story of the Kramer and Azerov families that it is hard to believe that a version of it was first published as a stand-alone work in a Canadian literary magazine in 2005.

Explaining that the rejection scenario actually happened to her paternal grandmother – and that, like Lily, her “grandmother ended up marrying her rogue fiancé’s brother” – Richler told the Independent, “I wrote that first scene back in 2004 and my interest at that time was to explore what it might have been like for a young woman alone in the world to be rejected on sight by the man on whom she depended to build her new life. Once I began writing, however, I realized I wanted to set that arrival in the time period immediately following the Second World War, rather than 1903 (the actual year of my grandmother’s arrival) because I was very interested in capturing the feel of Montreal in those immediate postwar years when so many Holocaust survivors arrived in Montreal, influencing and changing the Jewish community there.

“The setting and time period were so rich for me that, for several years, I wrote without direction, without shaping the material into a story. I had to allow the material to emerge on paper in vignettes and seemingly unrelated stories until, finally, about four years into the writing, I had a sense of what it was that most interested me and what the story was that I wanted to pull out from all the impressions and memories that had poured out of me.”

With her first novel being rooted in what was then a current situation and the latter two being tied more intimately to her own life/family but historical fiction, the Jewish Independent asked Richler to describe the evolution of her literary style.

“In each of my novels,” she said, “I’ve worked to match the narrative voice to the setting, time period and story being told. Throwaway Angels, set in the Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, is told in very spare, unadorned prose, while Your Mouth is Lovely, set in late-19th-century, early-20th-century Russia, reflects the more expansive, lyrical style of that time. Both of those novels were told in the first person by one narrator.

The Imposter Bride is the first novel where I’ve used more than one narrative voice, alternating between first person and third person. It allowed me to incorporate a wider range of perspectives, to tell a multi-faceted story, and to reflect more of the complexity of the lives and situations I depict.

“I have to smile when I hear The Imposter Bride described as historical fiction,” she continued, “because it is set in the time period of my own life, the postwar years in Montreal. To me, that’s contemporary, but I realize that it’s getting to the point where it’s very fair to call a novel set in the mid- to late-20th century historical fiction.

“It’s certainly a novel which explores the effects of large historical events on the lives of individuals.”

In her novels, these events irreparably change the lives of Richler’s protagonists in ways that are not always easily definable. One of the many strengths of her writing is that she doesn’t force a happy or even a complete ending. She seems content to continue exploring. When asked about such recurring themes as identity, the impact of violence, mothers being separated from their daughters (or vice versa), the persecution of Jews by external enemies and the alienation of Jews within their own community when they diverge from certain norms/expectations, Richler said, “My themes arise from the lives and situations of my characters which, in turn, arise from my own time and place in history. I don’t actually set out in any conscious way to explore particular themes, but somehow the same themes always reappear in my stories, even if the characters and their situations differ from novel to novel.

“In terms of the themes you mention, I think that’s a good summary of some of my preoccupations, but I would say I’m less interested in the persecution of Jews per se than in how individuals and communities respond to being misunderstood, ostracized, persecuted and how individuals and communities respond in different ways to overwhelming loss.”

The book launch and signing with Nancy Richler is being presented by the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival, HarperCollins Canada and the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery, and will take place on Monday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m., at the gallery. Admission is free and there will be light refreshments served.