Your Mouth is Lovely

Published by HarperCollins Canada and Ecco Press (2002).

Translated into 7 languages.

The 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

The 2004 Adei Wizo award (Italy).

Set in Russia between 1890 and 1912, Your Mouth Is Lovely follows the story of Miriam, a nineteen-year-old sent into Siberian exile after the Russian Revolution of 1905. In a letter to her daughter -- whom she was forced to give up at birth -- Miriam tells a haunting story of life in a Belarus shtetl and the events that led to her arrest.

Reviews

A story as sublime as its title...This novel is weighty in substance and yet light and agile in style..It reads as if one of Bronte's plain,inwardly seething heroines had wandered onto the pages of Tolstoy...Full of vital ideas...A wonderfully realized work of the imagination...impossible to forget.

The Montreal Gazette

Your Mouth is Lovely is suffused with the lyricism of the ancient texts and their seductive mythologies.

The LA Times | Read Further

"When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain."

Nancy Richler chose this insight by Khalil Gibran as part of her entry in her Montreal high school yearbook in 1974. Perhaps she was prescient: Your Mouth is Lovely seems to be based on partings. The story is set in Russia of 1912, with flashbacks from 1897. The heroine is Miriam, who was born Nechama to a mother who drowned herself soon after giving birth to her, still grieving for the loss of her first child. Her name is changed to Miriam by her wet nurse, Lipsa, to fool the angel of death, and allow her to escape her ill luck.

Miriam is raised by Lipsa in the town of Pripet until she is six, when her father remarries and takes her back. Her stepmother, Tsila, is a seamstress whose creations are so fine they are considered a snare and a vanity by the very women who flock to buy them. She is also a strong individual who does not care what others think of her. She gives Miriam a religious - though unorthodox - education, encouraging her to think through the scriptures for herself, and more importantly encouraging her to aspire to a better life elsewhere. "Nice," she tells Miriam, "is somewhere else."

Unsurprisingly, Tsila's independent spirit does not sit well with the town's inhabitants, of whom Richler paints convincing and sympathetic portraits. There is Freyde the Sinus, Shlomo the Righteous (who cheats his employees), and who can forget Tsila's father Avraham, nicknamed the Hero because "when his house had caught fire in the middle of the night, he had run outside and sat on the snow, head in his hands, rocking and weeping, while his wife ushered their five children to safety"?

At 15, Miriam takes a job as a maid/companion to a woman in the city, and it is here that the story begins to focus on the political events which are at its heart. As Miriam spends more time in town and meets other girls her age, she becomes acquainted with new and dangerous ideas about a world without ceremonies or religion, about the proletariat and the oppressors, and about a new order. She joins a study circle - a much more risky activity than it may seem, for the Russian police were on the lookout for even a whisper of defiance. Indeed, the distribution of pamphlets in the nearby town of Gomel ends with a friend's death.

Just months before the outbreak of the failed revolution of 1905, when some sections of the Russian population rose up demanding improved living conditions and a say in government, Miriam leaves Pripet for Kiev on a family errand, and never returns. She hopes this will constitute a new beginning, but parted now a second time from her father and from Tsila as she was from Lipsa, her life becomes increasingly unstable. Drawn deeper and deeper into the vortex of the revolution, Miriam eventually ends up in a Siberian prison, from where she narrates her story. It seems that Miriam's luck wasn't fooled after all.

Richler helps her readers understand the background to that failed revolution through vivid details of everyday life in Pripet and Kiev. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment is that she brings to life a vanished world - that of the shtetl and Jewish life in pre-revolutionary Russia. Her writing is both emotionally true and layered.

The author, a cousin of the late Mordechai Richler, researched the novel thoroughly: the list of sources is three pages long.

In a pre-publication interview, Richler said that although the book is based on real events, she did not want it to sound like a history lesson. In this she has succeeded admirably, for her characters emerge sharply as individuals, even as one understands that they are symbols of different points of view.

In fact, the only time that Richler strikes any false notes is when she indulges in bouts of magic-realism and when she has Miriam reporting events which she could not possibly remember - for example, her own experience in the womb.

Mercifully, these "insights" are few and far between, and one can sit back and enjoy being swept away by the power of her vision.

The LA Times

December 13, 2002

This accomplished novel summons up the lost world of the Russian shtetls around the Pripet marshes, and shows how those communities were first changed and then annihilated by the events that led, ultimately, to the Russian Revolution.... Richler's work recalls the stories of Isaac Babel, in which the knowable is charged with mystery.

The New Yorker | Read Further

This accomplished novel summons up the lost world of the Russian shtetls around the Pripet marshes in Ukraine, and shows how those communities were first changed and then annihilated by the events that led, ultimately, to the Russian Revolution. At the center of Richler's tale is Miriam Lev, whose mother drowned herself when she was a day old, and who at age six is taken in hand by her father's new wife, Tsila, a harsh, beautiful seamstress who teaches Miriam the alphabet and dreams of another life. After an ill-starred and painful series of events, Miriam ends up, at nineteen, in Siberia, having shot an officer of the Tsar at point-blank range. Miriam's hegira is told here as a letter to her own daughter, whom she hasn't seen since she gave birth to her, in prison. Richler's work recalls the stories of Isaac Babel, in which the knowable is charged with mystery.

The New Yorker

December 2, 2002

Richler has created unforgettable, deeply nuanced characters, freethinking dreamers whose revolutionary activities feel both historically inevitable and mysteriously personal.

Publisher's Weekly | Read Further

Like a doomed love affair, the Russian Revolution proceeds according to its own inexorable logic in this haunting U.S. debut by Canadian Richler (Throw Away Angels). Within hours of Miriam Lev's birth into a swampy shtetl in prerevolutionary Minsk, her mother dispatches her to a wet nurse and drowns herself. Six years later, Miriam is halfheartedly reclaimed by her father, Aaron, "the Stutterer," newly married to the young seamstress Tsila. With her grotesque facial birthmark and a disposition "sour as spoiled milk," Tsila fulfills the job requirements for wicked stepmother. But this remarkably complex character educates Miriam "to be a human being among human beings" and instills in her the urge to escape ("Nice is somewhere else"). She also binds Miriam to her own family, especially to her rebellious sister Bayla, now scandalously cohabitating with the agitator Leib in Kiev. Convinced that poverty, pogroms and mounting political unrest are making Russia uninhabitable, Tsila decides they'll emigrate to Argentina. But late in 1904, just months before the outbreak of revolution, she sends Miriam to Kiev to find Bayla—a quest that leads to a Siberian political prison. Weaving together political and cultural history, magical realism and the resigned mordancy of Jewish humor, Richler has created a world that seems totally inhabited, but poised to self-destruct. Too many tangential incidents and indistinguishable minor characters crowd the novel, but in Tsila, Bayla and especially in Miriam, Richler has created unforgettable, deeply nuanced characters, freethinking dreamers whose revolutionary activities feel both historically inevitable and mysteriously personal.

Publisher's Weekly

October 7, 2002

Your Mouth is Lovely is a delight to read and can proudly take its place alongside its worthy forebears.

Quill and Quire | Read Further

The difficult and colourful lives of Russian Jews at the beginning of the 20th century are familiar subjects in fiction, and it takes a certain daring to tackle them again. Writers must compete with such masters as I.B. Singer and Isaac Babel, and the risks of writing derivative if not downright redundant work are great. Nancy Richler is up to the task; Your Mouth Is Lovely is a rich portrait of the lives of Russian Jewish women during these years of upheaval.

The novel tells the story of Miriam, a Jewish woman imprisoned in Siberia for her role in the failed Russian revolution of 1905. Miriam narrates the story to her daughter, who was taken from her at birth and now lives with an aunt in Montreal. Over the course of the novel, Miriam attempts to explain her upbringing, and the circumstances that led to her arrest.

Richler has done a tremendous amount of research on the Pale of Settlement and the rising tide of revolutionary fervour that swept Russia at the turn of the 20th century. What makes Your Mouth Is Lovely especially absorbing is Richler’s ability to seamlessly infuse her historical knowledge into the lives of her characters, weaving it into the crucial details of lives lived. We meet gossipy shtetl women and revolutionary fanatics, and while the tone of their pronouncements may strike a familiar note, their words and phrases are consistently fresh and dynamic. Particularly compelling is the portrayal of Tsila, Miriam’s stepmother, a complex woman caught between the “backward” superstitions of her neighbours and the “advanced” political notions of the next generation. Though the novel is most certainly about the struggles and joys of women, the mostly peripheral male characters are also complex and sympathetic, as vividly drawn and compelling in their imperfections as the women.

Your Mouth Is Lovely is a delight to read and can proudly take its place alongside its worthy forebears.

Quill and Quire

Reviewer: Adam Sol

October 2002

A true achievement...astonishing...thoroughly absorbing...These are characters to relish.

The Vancouver Sun

Richler has created a vital, credible world that seamlessly demonstrates the interconnectedness of humanity. Such is the power of her craft that Miriam's story transcends the mundane, propelling this magnificent novel into the company of Dickens and Dostoyesvski.

Library Journal | Read Further

It's 1911-only six years before the fall of the Russian Empire. And Miriam is writing a journal that she hopes will eventually make its way to her young daughter, living with Miriam's Aunt Bayla in Canada. Unfortunately for Miriam, she is incarcerated in the bleakest Siberian prison camp under a life sentence for having engaged in revolutionary activities. Miriam tells her story in a succession of flashbacks interspersed with the brief journal entries. We are soon drawn in by the peculiar circumstances of Miriam's life-her mother's suicide at her birth; her adoption by a peasant family; readmittance several years later to her father's household with his new wife, Tsila (Bayla's older sister); and then Miriam's journey from the shtetl to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. In Kiev, she believes her life will have a new beginning: "No one knew me in Kiev, no one cared who I was, where I came from. It could be dangerous, I supposed, to be so alone, but I felt no danger, only joy." Instead, she unwittingly gets involved in the revolutionary movement, which is her undoing. Richler has created a vital, credible world that seamlessly demonstrates the interconnectedness of humanity. Such is the power of her craft that Miriam's story transcends the mundane, propelling this magnificent novel into the company of Dickens and Dostoyevski. Richler's first novel, Throw Away Angels, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award in her native Canada. Recommended without reservation for all fiction collections.

Library Journal

October 7, 2002

Richler writes like a long walk in rolling countryside, the language flowing and lyrical, and yet she never veers far from the story line.

The Globe and Mail

Canadian novelist Richler fashions a tale of lyric historical suspense...The rare woman revolutionary has her day in a story written with tremendous conviction and feeling.

Kirkus Review | Read Further

Canadian novelist Richler (Throw Away Angels, not reviewed) fashions a tale of lyric historical suspense out of a Jewish girl’s life—from her stunted beginnings in a late-19th-century Belarussian village to her political arrest during the 1905 Russian Revolution.

From a harsh Siberian prison, in 1911, teenaged Miriam relates in flashback the sad story leading to her incarceration for life. Born in the dirt-poor shtetl on the swampy Pripet River, Miriam is doubly cursed: her mother walks into the sea after giving birth to her; and her forbidding stepmother, Tsila, leaves a death scar on her neck from slicing her trachea open when she suffers diphtheria as a child. (“Your mouth is lovely,” Tsila tells the child, teaching her to speak.) Miriam grows up under the sour, morbid teachings of Tsila, who scorns the town’s gossips and dreams of a better life outside of Russia. Pogroms descend on defenseless Jewish villages, and insurrection is in the air: by degrees, Miriam is drawn into secret political meetings and running errands for agitators. Sent to Kiev to find her aunt Bayla, who has run off with her suspect fiancé, Leib, Miriam suffers her first imprisonment for dropping pamphlets over the balcony at the opera; soon, thanks to Bayla’s lax supervision, she becomes a member of the Socialist movement. Although well educated and deeply committed, Miriam is young and falls sway to more forceful personalities, like Leib, who seduces her irresponsibly; as a result, her final imprisonment feels arbitrary and unreal. Richler has done admirable research (she lists reams of sources in the back); her novel’s strength lies in the quietly assured detail of Miriam’s peasant family beginnings. The revolutionaries, inevitably, spout rather uninteresting slogans, and the ending rushes to a neat conclusion.

The rare woman revolutionary has her day in a story written with tremendous conviction and feeling.

Kirkus Review

September 15, 2002

In a refreshing departure from most novels about revolution Your Mouth is Lovely places women at the centre. Richler has created strong, intelligent women from strike leaders to village yentas. Even the old women's gossip, so easy to parody, is infused with dignity and wit...Both story and texture leave a lasting impression.

Maclean's

An uncanny affinity exists between two novels by Canadian writers who were unaware of each other’s work. A comparison of these two outstanding works — Adele Wiseman’s 1974 masterpiece Crackpot and Nancy Richler’s recently released novel Your Mouth Is Lovely — illuminates the preoccupations of two writers working more than 30 years apart. Each book is set in a different time and place — Crackpot in mid 20th-century Canada, and Your Mouth Is Lovely in late 19th-century Russia. But the two writers’ preoccupations result in works that seem to emerge from one ongoing creative moment in the collective Jewish effort to comprehend the impact of their history.

Robin Roger, Literary Review of Canada | Read Further

An uncanny affinity exists between two novels by Canadian writers who were unaware of each other’s work. A comparison of these two outstanding works — Adele Wiseman’s 1974 masterpiece Crackpot and Nancy Richler’s recently released novel Your Mouth Is Lovely — illuminates the preoccupations of two writers working more than 30 years apart. Each book is set in a different time and place — Crackpot in mid 20th-century Canada, and Your Mouth Is Lovely in late 19th-century Russia. But the two writers’ preoccupations result in works that seem to emerge from one ongoing creative moment in the collective Jewish effort to comprehend the impact of their history.

Set in Winnipeg after World War I and spanning a period until after World War II, Crackpot is the history of an impoverished, ignorant, obese Jewish whore. The term “crackpot” can be used to describe anybody from the refreshingly eccentric to the floridly psychotic. Wiseman’s heroine, Hoda, longs to be the latter but is doomed to be the former:

And she touched, that night, the outermost boundary of aloneness that can be reached by a human being who is yet denied that privilege of loss of responsibility in suffering, which is the gift of madness. For though her mind stumbled and floundered amid the painful fragments and the bizarre ironies of her life, and she felt that truly she must be going mad, she arose that morning, without having experienced the intercession of sleep, and brought Daddy his ginger and honey mixture.

The “painful fragments and bizarre ironies of her life” are these: overfed into obese compliance by an anxious and morbidly ill mother, Hoda is left on the threshold of adolescence to care for her blind, unemployable and widowed father. Unguided appetites, confused longings and limited options result in her accepting the sexual advances of the local hooligans in exchange for a pittance. Ignorance of biology results in her unexpectedly giving birth without any prior inkling of the blessed event or, as Wiseman describes, any comprehension of what was hap-pening to her during it:

Tear loose the nightmare lump, shove it out into the oozing wet darkness…Perhaps it wasn’t death but the long-awaited transformation then, and fat Hoda had dropped away from inside all at once, a ton and a half of guts, that had left only her true beautiful self, transfigured by this upheaval from within…but there was something still going on down there…It squawked. The lump was alive.

When she leaves her son on the doorstep of the Jewish orphanage, Hoda attaches a garbled note that inspires speculation that he is the illegitimate result of the recent visit to Winnipeg of Edward, Prince of Wales. So his protectors give him the name David, “to signify his acceptance by a community which had royal names of its own to bestow.” Ensuring his safety in the orphanage, Hoda continues to watch over his well-being by sending anonymous donations of hard-earned cash for him throughout his childhood.

The reward for her maternal vigilance is that when her son reaches adolescence and follows the neighbourhood practice of visiting the local whore for initiation, Hoda recognizes him too late and realizes that she has no choice but to satisfy the urges he has paid her — with her own money — to satisfy. Thus the Oedipal dilemma is revisited from the perspective of a unique Jewish mother. This Jewish prince gets off more lightly than the Greek one. Hoda spares David the knowledge of her identity, and he leaves town with vision intact.

But Hoda must commit the incestuous deed with the full consciousness that Jocasta was spared. It is after this torturous tryst that Hoda comes to understand that she has been denied insanity or death or any possibility of the fulfillment of her own adolescent dreams of loving romance. All that remains is the dim hope of a vestige of dignity. The struggle to gather the shattered fragments of her story into a coherent narrative that permits her a sense of mastery over her fate occupies the rest of the book. These awakenings to the injustices of her fate are excruciating moments of recognition; as the grown cracked pot comes to understand how the fault lines formed, she achieves a dim sense of the wholeness with which she began life, as well as the impossibility of returning to that state.

Why does Wiseman subject her heroine to this ultimate agony? The answer may be evident in the resolution of her story. As Hoda ages and her suitability for this kind of work begins to wane, an unexpected suitor offers her a proposal of marriage. This man is shattered in a different way, but it is not an eccentric character combined with ironic accidents that make him a crackpot. He is the survivor of a mass-extermination action in which he was left beneath a pile of dead bodies, including those of his own family. Crawling up from the bottom of a pit of Jewish body parts has given Lazar a stark knowledge of human degradation and presented him with the unfathomable puzzle of how to redeem life when all that makes it meaningful has been obliterated. Knowing that wholeness is impossible, he seeks an alliance with one who understands, in her own way, the annihilation of fragmentation.

Hoda and Lazar each represent a different aspect of the Jewish attempt to remain intact during historical crisis. Hoda begins as a whole being in tenuous circumstances, and her cracks develop as she grows. Lazar grows into an intact adulthood, but is shattered by overwhelming blows. Their union, late in life, has no generative potential, but it permits a partial recovery from the tragedies to which their time in history sub- jected them.

The union of a European Jew who survives the Holocaust with a very peculiar Canadian Jew who is spared the Holocaust expresses the possibility of bridging the inconceivable rupture that took place among Jews during the period about which Wiseman writes. Frigid, isolated and snowbound as it is, Winnipeg is still a place where healing contact is possible; Wiseman sees this because it is a place that has accepted so many newcomers, from so many different backgrounds. As a schoolgirl, Hoda undergoes the torturous process of absorption into the dominant culture, and comes to consider herself an entitled citizen of a city that should therefore be host to survivors such as Lazar. In the final scene of the book, the random threads of Hoda’s life are all contained within one triumphant dream. Hoda, Daddy, David and Lazar all float in “muddy waters” (the Aboriginal meaning of the word Winnipeg), while she recites a revised version of the city’s civic motto: “Commerce, Prudence, Industry” is now changed to “Condoms, Prurience, Incestry.” The crackpot is contained by the melting pot. Montreal figures as a destination of safety and prosperity in Your Mouth Is Lovely but the action of the novel takes place before Richler’s characters emigrate, in the Russian empire between 1887 and 1912 Shadowy as it is, however, Canada’s presence is felt; it is the receptive ground providing shelter to the persecuted, an idealized motherland. Your Mouth Is Lovely begins with the protagonist, Miriam, glancing back at her short, turbulent life while serving a life sentence for political insurrection in the Maltzev Prison in Siberia. Feeling death approach and yearning for the daughter she gave birth to in prison, Miriam reaches out to the child by documenting the events that led to her conception and their separation. Six years old, adopted and living in Montreal as the book opens, Miriam’s daughter, Hayya, is the reader for whom Miriam’s story is intended. The private communication between mother and child lends an intimate tone to the novel, creating the sense that the reader is a privileged onlooker.

Miriam retraces the steps that took her from her village by the side of the swampy Pripet River to the terrorist underground in Kiev. She tells her tale in terms not only of the external events that took place and the historical realities that prevailed, such as the date of her birth in 1887 and the scale of the local mill economy, but also of the emotional, religious and ideological struggles of the people who populate her world. Characters act in accordance with social conditions and an inscrutable internal process composed of signs, superstitions, articles of faith and irrational impulses that make them rich and complex. Miriam’s compelling task is to observe and understand these mysterious creatures known as friends and family as she struggles with the fate assigned to her by her mother’s suicide. As she grows into adolescence and adulthood, her uncertain status, fear and shame create a state of almost impenetrable confusion that she struggles to decipher.

While experiencing the inevitable childhood challenges of surviving illness, learning to read, mastering religious skills, and grasping family and community dynamics, Miriam seems to be the object of competing world-views. Her step- mother wishes to teach her a progressive approach to Judaism, her secretive step-aunt advocates political solutions to the poverty and persecution to which they are subject, and her childhood friend recruits her to the subversive Bund. Merely stepping from the door of her hut seems to submerge her in a whirlwind of gossip, opinion, innuendo and ideology. All the while, though, the world seems to be changing, the longstanding traditions persist, including the ever present arranging of marriages. Each encounter provides Miriam with random information, which she pieces together into an incomplete picture of the truth. Like Hoda, she is destined to an unending struggle to create order out of the chaotic fragments of her personal experience.

But in Miriam’s case, it is not just the inner psychic world that is chaotic, but the external world as well. The nature of reality is always in question, and upheavals grip Miriam’s community as forcefully as an erupting volcano. The very composition of the group is in flux, as some emigrate, some flee from arranged engagements, some commit suicide, some succumb to typhus, some disappear into the revolutionary movement and some, worst of all, are caught by pogroms. Of those who remain, it is not entirely clear just how to understand them. Miriam herself cannot quite piece together how her parents courted, why their marriage was delayed, whether she is legitimate or not, whether it was the death at birth of her mother’s first child that caused her suicide, and who was really the father of her mother’s children. The outer circle is as puzzling as the inner. When her step-aunt Bayla puzzles everybody by going away with her fiancée without marrying him first, Miriam sets out to find her, thus escaping the confines of her village and plunging into the genuinely dangerous life of an illegal Jew in the restricted city of Kiev. Betrayed by her aunt, who steals her money, her friend, who tricks her into participating in an illegal demonstration, and her aunt’s fiancée, who seduces and abandons her, Miriam is left with nothing but time to write out her tale for her daughter, who is taken from her as soon as she is born in prison.

The telling of the tale is in itself redemptive. As she tries to make herself understood to her child, she finds she must first understand the characters in her life. This, she realizes at the outset, is no simple task. “No person can be so neatly understood,” she warns her daughter/reader. “Hence these words I write to you, my meagre offering, my attempt to clear a path to your own beginning.” But it is by no means meagre, Miriam’s offering. The perennial observer, she has a keen eye for the foibles of all those around her. She describes how the residents of Mozyr dream, bicker, gossip, bargain and pray, portraying complex paradoxical human beings. In fact, paradox is the heart of the world view at which she eventually arrives, summed up in her aphoristic statement: “Destruction births creation.”

The most puzzling of these generative destructions for Miriam is her brother’s death, hours after his birth, which leads to her own compensatory conception a few weeks later. His death created her life and her life failed to prevent her suicidal mother’s death. And the daughter to which this book is directed, Hayya, saves her mother/narrator from death by being the cause of the reduction of her sentence from death to life imprisonment. While listening to would-be revolutionaries indulge in rhetoric about the virtues of terror, the paradoxes of life and death whisper on the edge of her awareness at all times, leaving her resistant to any easy explanation as much as she might yearn for one.

As Miriam’s story draws to a close in Siberia, Hayya’s story begins in Montreal. Miriam imagines her aunt Bayla, who has adopted Hayya and promised to raise her, making a favourable match in Montreal. Canada is the motherland, where new couples form and families flourish.

There are several quirky similarities shared by the heroines of both Wiseman’s and Richler’s books. They are both second children born after aprevious child dies. Both have one parent with a hunchback. Both grow up without their mother. Both become involved in radical activities, in both cases mostly by accident. Both have a child who is taken from them, and both stories end with a dream about the lost child. As neither author was aware of the other’s work (Wiseman died in 1992 and Richler has not read Crackpot), this is not a result of one having directly influenced the other. Rather, it can perhaps be attributed to some commonalities in their backgrounds, which persisted from Wiseman’s generation to Richler’s. Wiseman was born in Winnipeg in 1928 to parents who had emigrated from Ukraine. She attended Jewish parochial school, spoke Yiddish to her parents and read the masterpieces of Yiddish literature in their original. Richler was born in Montreal in 1957,to parents who were the first generation in her family to be born in Canada. She also attended Jewish parochial school, but the language emphasized was Hebrew. Each writer was firmly entrenched in the Jewish community of her time and place. For Wiseman, this meant coming of age as the grim facts of the Holocaust came to light: “These were not exactly happy days for the world at large, and there was very little innocent about the world into which I emerged as a young adult,” she wrote of that period. “We were counting our dead…in the counting of our dead I had more dead than I could ever count…I did not feel guilt because I survived; I felt the responsibility, rather, in some sense to make the dead survive through me.”

Richler’s historical moment meant growing up with the children of Holocaust survivors, observing survivors and speculating on the meaning of recovery. “As a people we were so traumatised after the war, so focussed on the State of Israel that only now that we’re starting to go back and ask what was the life. How we lived, not just how we died. This is the offshoot of growing up post – World War II — is watching the survivors…some embraced life, some never were able to again. What is there in human nature? That’s sort of underneath it for me, those choices that face you. Some people kill themselves, some people no matter how difficult, struggle on.”

In a sense, both authors struggle with the same questions: how to create life in the face of death, how to avoid despair in the aftermath of trauma, how to understand the world in times of complete incomprehensibility. Each uses a sacred text to express the nature of her task. Crackpot opens with an epigraph from the Kabbalistic creation legend: “He stored the Divine Light in a Vessel, but the Vessel, unable to contain the Holy Radiance, burst, and its shards, permeated with sparks of the Divine, scattered through the Universe.” The Kabbalistic conclusion drawn from this myth is that the human task is to repair the world that was shattered when the pot cracked. Hoda’s is the story of one of God’s creatures attempting to fulfill this obligation through trying to understand the whole as she pieces together the fragments.

Richler chose for her epigraph Jeremiah’s question: “Most devious is the heart; It is perverse — who can fathom it?” This is the puzzle Miriam poses for herself. She too sets herself the task of creating understanding through the telling of a life. It is this quest for truth that strikes the same stirring note in both these tales.

The most poignant theme shared by these two women writers can be described as the lament for the fragmented family. A tone of yearning for the reunion of mother and child haunts both books, each of which can be read as a consolation for the pain of being both a motherless child and a mother who loses her child. Grief and anxiety over the well-being of their offspring stalk Miriam and Hoda. Guilt for failing to nurture their babies throbs like a heartbeat. This affirmation of the centrality of the bond of mother and child lends each story a timeless quality that transcends the details of time and place and gives rise to the sensation that these two books are cut from the same cloth. After seeing her daughter skating in a swatch of blue light in her dream, Miriam wakens to “a feeling of peace that lingers for a moment.” Still in a dream state, Hoda encloses her fragmented family in “a magic circle.” For Adele Wiseman and Nancy Richler, mothers are the eternal, portable touchstone that makes Jewish recovery possible.

Robin Roger, Literary Review of Canada

December 2002

Nancy Richler's magnificent novel is an assertion of the mystery of the human condition and a defence of the need to recognize that mystery.

The National Post | Read Further

“If humanity should ever lose the feeling that there is a mystery—a secret—in the world, then it is all over with us, “ the great Jewish scholar and thinker Gershom Scholem said in 1975. “But I don’t believe we’ll ever come to that.”

Beginning with a question from the prophet Jeremiah—“Most devious is the heart; it is perverse—who can fathom it?”—Nancy Richler’s magnificent novel Your Mouth is Lovely is an assertion of the mystery of the human condition, and a defence of the need to recognize that mystery. “No person can be so neatly understood,” writes the narrator, Miriam. What follows is a thrilling journey into complexity.

Told as a letter written to the daughter taken away from Miriam at birth, Your Mouth is Lovely takes place between 1887 and 1912 in Russian-ruled Belarus and Ukraine. As a kind of apologia pro vita sua, Miriam offers her text as a substitute for maternal love and protection. A motherless child herself, she wishes to ease her daughter’s childhood by making herself as known and comprehensible as possible. This is an act of reparation born of the shame and confusion with which she has been plagued since her own mother’s suicide the day after her birth. In a disenfranchised Jewish community obsessed with lineage, and guided as much by superstition as by faith, Miriam must navigate her way between secrets, shame and selfhood as she struggles to claim her sense of dignity without losing a link to the very world that attempts to deprive her of it. While spinning between the dogma of religion, the ideology of revolution, the cruelty of community and the violence of the terrorist underground, Miriam experiences bottomless anxiety relieved by momentary understanding of herself in relation to the people to whom she has been vouchsafed.

The caregivers and community members who substitute as family are irresistibly quirky, with their physical oddities, bizarre dreams and sexual proclivities. Miriam’s stepmother, Tsila, disfigured by a hideous birthmark, is redeemed by profound religious intelligence and artistic gifts. Noam, the whip-wielding teamster, strikes fear in Miriam as a child, until she learns that he too was a motherless child, a favoured suitor of her own mother and an attentive son to his invalid father. Her fervent Bundist friends proclaim revolutionary rhetoric, but also express the private fears humiliations and yearnings that are their genuine motivations. The occasional bombast appears, besotted with grandiose speech, but these characters ultimately appear more pathetic than vicious as they march themselves into futile early graves. A poignant secondary character, a failed assassin who protects Miriam when she is most desperate, is the aptly named Wolf, whose awareness of his voracious need for love leads him to intentionally bungle an assassination attempt and subsequently declare: “I …realized…that I love life more than justice.” Wolf asserts that it is not capitalism that devalues human life, as his comrades would have it, but the human heart itself.

That Richler’s characters dream and interpret their dreams shows that they are alert to the interplay of everyday reality with personal fantasy. Their waking lives are also filled with dream-like evocations. A flock of cranes chattering on the swamps outside the village, the unexpected sound of a lone voice reciting psalms in the forest on a winter’s night, are real events that seem as ephemeral as their dreams and leaven the grim reality of life with genuine mystery.

Richler shows the motor that drives all these humans is not theory, passion or instinct, but chance. Miriam becomes an accidental terrorist, prompted by impulse, unexpected opportunities, false friends and seducers. Her journey into sedition demonstrates that reality is not entirely within human control, and reveals how deluded her revolutionary peers are for seeking ultimate control. As she contemplates those who seek to reduce the world to a manageable formula, Miriam comes to understand the limits of formulae.

But the greatest driving force is grief, into which Miriam is born and out of which comes her tale. The book itself is a consolation that seeks comfort by attempting to understand the danger of human attachment and the price we pay for it.

The National Post

October 12, 2002