If your life, your very identity, is a lie, can you live hiding your true self forever? Or would you eventually have to leave the life you'd built on that false foundation no matter what the consequences for you or those left behind? In Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride, this question, tied to questions of survival, love, interconnectedness, and the desperate secrets of World War II, drives the whole of this Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted novel.
Opening with Lily Azerov, now Kramer, sharing a plum with her new husband in a small room off of a banquet hall in Montreal just after their wedding ceremony, the novel alternates between Lily's new life as a mail order bride in Canada and her daughter Ruth's life and search for the mother who abandoned her and her father when she was only three months old. When Lily arrives in Canada after escaping a devastated post-war Europe via Palestine, she finds herself abandoned on the train platform. Her intended husband Sol took one look at her and left her sitting there so his brother Nathan ends up marrying the clearly emotionally damaged Lily instead. And it is as early as her wedding that the fact that she has assumed a false identity is clear, if not to all, then to some of the Jewish community in Montreal, specifically to the real Lily Azerov's cousin, Ida Pearl Krakauer, who has gatecrashed the wedding. Then the narrative flips to first person, told by Ruth, Nathan and Lily's daughter as she reminisces about the unexpected gift that arrived addressed to her on her sixth birthday. It was from her long-absent mother and contained nothing besides a pretty rock and a notecard with the details of where and when it was found.
As the novel progresses, it moves seamlessly back and forth between the details of Lily's life as a young wife, her memories of life on the Polish/Russian border and the horrors that drove her to her deception, the contents of the real Lily Azerov's journal, Ruth's feelings about growing up without a mother, and her ultimate search for the truth about the woman who could seemingly so easily walk out on her own precious baby. World War II damaged and shattered so many, including people not even born until after the war. The weight of the past and the loss of most of an entire generation haunted those who survived, a traumatic and terrible legacy that they in turn passed on to their own children as is evidenced here by Lily and Ruth and the ghosts in their lives. For Lily, there was no escape from her past within her assumed identity. And for Ruth there was nothing that could make up for her mother's choice to leave her despite the enveloping love with which the rest of the family surrounded her.
This tale is a beautifully written but heartbreaking one. Richler has constructed it incredibly intricately with each of the narratives interlocking with the other and yet still carefully closing in on themselves. There's some easy but delicately handled symbolism such as the rocks sent to Ruth from her mother much as stones are left on a grave suggest the resilience of enduring memory and the pair of journals left behind with Lily Azerov's being full while Lily Kramer's is blank, her story still unknown, still to be discovered. Although the narrative circles back upon itself time and again, it still moves forward smoothly and cleanly. The tone is generally melancholy, filled with unavoidable and overwhelming loss, but there is nothing graphic despite the portions set amongst the horrors of the war. Relationships, identity, and what we have to do to survive our lives form the backbone of each part of the novel and the ending is well earned with the characters living exactly where they should be and the narrative neatly coming full circle one final time. Quietly, carefully, and elegantly written, this is a book not to be missed.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.