by Emma Richler
Published by Knopf
215 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
Emma Richler is the middle child in a family of five. So is Jemima Weiss, the narrator in Richler's first novel, Sister Crazy. Jem's father is a wild-haired and amusingly rumpled writer. So, also, was Richler's father, the recently deceased Canadian icon Mordecai Richler. Like Jem's father, Mordecai was a non-practicing Jew who married a beautiful British shiksa. At first, second and even third glance, then, Sister Crazy would seem to be at least mildly autobiographical. Sometimes this matters. Sometimes when a writer draws very heavily on his or her life for a novel, we tend to point a finger and say: "How hard could that have been? You didn't even have to work at making it up." And yet.
Sister Crazy is a stunningly beautiful debut. Richler's feel for meter, dark comedy and strong characterizations is flawless. Has she pulled heavily from her own history? Maybe yes and maybe no, but the bottom line is no one can tell a story this perfectly without a very complete talent.
Richler's novel is told in seven chapters that together present a full portrait. However, read out of order or even alone, each one could stand alone as an almost novella length short story. Read in the prescribed order, they work together to build nuance and resonance so that by the final chapter, "No Time," you have a picture of a disturbed young woman who has sprung from the bosom of a well grounded and loving family. This emotional disturbance rears its head in odd little ways throughout the book. The adult Jem obliquely contemplating suicide followed by more views from Jem's childhood, told as if from knee height: from the view of a child.
In chapter two, "Angel's Share," Jem is contemplating, among other things, the personal survival book she is writing in her head. It includes her basic life rules, followed by brief explanations of why she has included it. The rules and explanations range from childishly hilarious to darkly telling. Rule one falls into the former category:
1. NEVER LEAVE YOUR GLASSES ON THE FLOOR.
By the time we get to rule eight, things have taken a more serious turn.
8. WHEN YOU ARE GOING THROUGH DARK TIMES, PACK UP YOUR KNIVES AND GIVE THEM TO A FRIEND.
Richler consistently lightens the dark areas of Sister Crazy with humor and deepens humorous passages with dollops of darkness. Bizarrely, the book that results is well-balanced and even joyous. Also bizarrely, the narrator Jem emerges as both askew and in charge. She is both caretaker and caregiver and, in some ways, the glue that binds the family together, at least in her mind. Jem loves her family so deeply and completely, she is like an exposed nerve, critically affected by the changes that all families must go through and aglow with the simple love she finds all around her.
Here comes Harriet and she has Mum on the end of her little hand. She has a beaming expression, like she made Mum all by herself and wants everyone to see her fine work. And it is fine work. I can't help it. I am just crazy about this woman. Whenever I see her, I get this pain. It's not a bad pain, just a prickly feeling like I am all of a sudden aware of my heart -- its shape, the size of it, the two ventricles, the pumping action, the vulnerable little veins running across it and the arteries leading in and out. It's weird.
It's difficult, in family-based fictions, for a writer to avoid extremes. It's common for a novel with a family focus to become too maudlin or sappy or cute. Sister Crazy strikes a perfect balance. It is edgy, touching, dark and warm: not by turns, but all at once. An auspicious beginning for a writer with pedigree and talent. | July 2001
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.