Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

Nancy Richler is a fantastic writer and is a joy to read.  Her latest novel The Imposter Bride is a beautifully written story that focuses on a heartbreaking mother and daughter relationship (or better put, lack thereof).  The story begins with a mysterious European woman who arrives in Montreal from Palestine just after World War Two.  Set to marry Sol, a man who she has never met, she is told on arrival by her husband-to-be that he no longer wishes to marry her.  Amidst this rejection, it becomes clear that the enigmatic woman is not who she says she is, and that she has stolen the identity of a dead woman back in Europe.

Despite this, Sol’s brother Nathan asks the enigmatic woman if she would be his wife, and after she says yes the couple gets married. They soon have a girl named Ruth, and settle into a domestic life in Montreal.  The woman’s painful past, however, is something that she cannot escape.  One day she disappears, leaving her baby girl with her father and family.  The reader is left with only questions.  Who is this woman?  Where did she go?  Why did she steal the identity of a dead woman?  And most importantly, at least for Ruth who is now a little girl, why did her mother abandoned her, only to suddenly start sending her strange rocks from different regions in Canada?

Richler’s writing is excellent.  To give you a sense of her skill, consider the following passage in Ruth’s voice as she observed a teacher at school:

I was twelve before I saw an adult cry. I’d seen adult eyes fill with tears before then, the time Elka was wearing a brand-new black dress when Sol came home from work, for example, and he looked at her and said, ‘What’s that?’ But if Elka’s tears spilled over into crying when she fled the kitchen that day (Sol hot on her heels, apologizing) I didn’t see that. Nor did I see anything but moistness in my father’s eyes when Old Yeller died or when the dreaded doctor’s call came for Bella and the news turned out to be good. When the adults in my life cried they did it behind closed doors. Until Mr. C, my sixth grade teacher, who handed out a quiz one November afternoon, then stood by the window with tears running down his cheeks.

The emotion that best describes this book is beautiful sadness.  While filled with loss and heartache, this chronicle of a young girl’s search for her mother is told in a very moving way. It is therefore no surprise that the book was a shortlisted nominee for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Equally, I nodded my head in agreement when I learned that her first novel Throwaway Angels was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, while her second book Your Mouth Is Lovely won the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2004 Adei Wizo Award.  After being very impressed with her most recent book I plan to read her first two works.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In High Places by Harry Turtledove

This is the third book in the six-volume Crosstime Traffic science-fiction series for young adults.  Set in the late 21st century, the series revolves around a company called Crosstime Traffic, which has discovered the ability to travel to alternate earth's that have experienced different histories.  For instance, in some alternate timelines Germany has won World War I, the United States never came to be, the Soviet Union triumphed in the Cold War or the Roman Empire never existed.  The role of Crosstime Traffic employees is to travel to these alternate worlds to engage in trade, while pretending to be from the world that they are visiting.

Each novel in the series is a standalone story with unique characters and plot lines.  It is therefore not necessary to read the series sequentially, as the books only share the general context that lies behind each story.  As such, I did not read this collection in order, but rather jumped around from book to book (see previous reviews here, here, here and here).  Overall, I found the series to be mixed, with some books being good and others so-so.

Fortunately, this novel is the best of the five books that I have read to date. The story takes place in an alternate world where 80 per cent of Europe's population was killed by the Black Death, the industrial revolution never took place, slavery is widely accepted, and Spain and southern France are occupied by Muslims.  It also has a different form of Christianity, in which a second son of God named Henri who came after Jesus is worshipped.

The books sets up an intriguing story when a Crosstime Traffic employee is captured by bandits and then sold into slavery.  To her surprise, her new masters turn out to be rogue Crosstime employees who are running an illegal slave operation in another alternate world, and who are unaware that one of their slaves works for Crosstime.  This clever story captured my imagination, as did the book's intelligent discussion on the relationship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism.  In short, an excellent  book that is worth reading.

4 out of 5 stars