Title: The Imposter Bride
Author: Nancy Richler
Publisher: Harper Collins Canada
Read: December 13 - 17, 2012
When a young, enigmatic woman arrives in post-war Montreal, it is immediately clear that she is not who she claims to be. Her attempt to live out her life as Lily Azerov shatters as she disappears, leaving a new husband and baby daughter, and a host of unanswered questions. Who is she really and what happened to the young woman whose identity she has stolen? Why has she left and where did she go? It is left to the daughter she abandoned to find the answers to these questions as she searches for the mother she may never find or really know.
The Imposter Bride is a wonderfully insightful book about war, loss, displacement and new beginnings, and the impact of these on the individual and their families.
After fleeing the chaos of post-war Europe, Lily Azarov arrives in Montreal to begin her new life as a mail-order bride to Sol Kramer in order to secure an entry permit into Canada. However, on seeing the sad young woman at the railway station, Sol gets cold feet and opts out of the arrangement – instead his brother Nathan, attracted by Lily’s beauty and aura of mystery, marries the young refugee. From the very beginning it is clear to Nathan that his young bride carries a heavy burden of loss and grief from the unmentionable things she has had to endure during the war, and that she may not be the person she claims to be. But he is infinitely patient with her and hopes that the birth of their daughter Ruth will make Lily feel more settled and at home in her new country. However, when Ruth is three months old, Lily leaves the house to buy some milk and never returns.
Young Ruth grows up motherless but much loved by her father, grandmother, uncle Sol and Sol’s wife Elka,, who welcomes Ruth into their home and becomes Ruth’s mother substitute. Ruth knows very little about her mother, and doesn’t miss her.
“I didn’t miss her, had never missed her. I would not have known what to miss. Her absence was more a background to my life than anything else. It was a given, a stable fact of life that was definitional, not dynamic, like the hole in the centre of a bagel, without which a bagel would be something else …..”
On her sixth birthday, Ruth receives a parcel from her mother, containing a pretty quartz and a short impersonal postcard. Over the next decades Ruth gradually sets out to find out more about the mother she has never known, and who is surrounded by a shroud of mystery. Little by little some of Lily’s true identity is revealed, and her connection to the other women in Ruth’s life.
I have a weakness for books set during WWII and dealing with the subject of the holocaust. Several novels I have read in the past have addressed the issue of displacement, emigration and new beginnings, but none as perceptive as Richler’s novel. With great insight and subtlety she explores the impact of Lily’s traumatic past on her own life in a new country, as well as those around her. Emerging from unspeakable suffering and loss, and having left her very identity behind in order to start a new life, Lily is like a piece of driftwood, unable to forge emotional connections to people around her. Isolated by the experiences nobody else around her has shared or can fathom, her new life is not the haven Lily has hoped for, but casts her into isolation and lethargy. When she is confronted by her past, she does the only thing left open to her – she runs.
For Ruth, her mother is a shadowy figure who has never featured in her life, and who she does not miss. Yet the absence of her mother and the mystery surrounding her affect Ruth in very subtle ways, which prompt her to ask questions about the woman who abandoned her as a small baby. Over decades, Lily’s absence colours the relationships between all the strong and independent women in Ruth’s life ever so slightly – her grandmother Bella, Aunt Elka, Aunt Elka’s mother Ida and aunt Nina. But safe in the folds of her extended family it takes Ruth many years to want to find her mother, and reclaim the legacy of the past. Slowly all the loose ends come together as Lily’s past and true identity are revealed.
I really loved reading this book, and would have welcomed more detail about Lily’s experiences during the war, which knit the storyline together and explain some of the mystery surrounding her. The emotional journey it took me on was very intense – sometimes sad, always interesting, and certainly opening my eyes to the powerful influence trauma has on future generations. Having lost my mother as a child, I found it hard to reconcile Ruth’s passive acceptance with the pain I experienced from my mother’s absence, but found Richler’s explanations plausible and well documented.
A book highly recommended to anyone interested in the legacy of the holocaust, displacement and new beginnings – or simply about mother-daughter relationships impacted by trauma and loss.
Disclaimer: Thank you to The Reading Room and the publisher Harper Collins Canada for providing me with a free copy of this book for an honest review :)