The sprawling Weiss family--as recalled by Jemima, the middle child in Emma Richler’s amazing debut--live an almost idyllic existence. The feeling among the siblings is so palpable that we cannot help but share the acute nostalgia Jem experiences as she emerges from childhood.
In a darkly humorous voice she tells of playing elaborate war games with toy Action Man figures, composing a survival book ("Always have some sports news at hand for when your dad is in hospital after a scary operation to do with a fatal disease"), closely observing her beautiful Mum to fathom her magic, weaving the story of the Grail quest into her brother Jude's life. Jem’s extravagant tales of her eccentric beloved family will linger long after the last line.
What does it mean to be terminally, madly in love with your family? Jemima Weiss, the narrator of this nervy, inspired debut novel, knows very well the perils of the condition. She has never quite recovered from an imperfect but dangerously idyllic childhood, and in her stream-of-consciousness tale she loses herself in the lush lexicography of family. She is the middle child of five, born in the early '60s to an irascible Jewish sportswriter father and a gorgeous, serene Protestant mother who relocate from England to Canada when Jem is 11. Transatlantic and sophisticated, but also na ve and slightly wild, Jem and her siblings speak their own coded language, full of in-jokes and rambling free association (" 'Agnus Dei,' says Ben. 'Paschal lamb. Lamb to the slaughter.' 'Mary had a little lamb!' I say"). Ben, the eldest, has what the family calls a gothic sensibility; Gus, the youngest, is a golden boy. Jem loves them both, but her deepest, most complicated feelings are reserved for scattered, ethereal Harriet, three years younger and her special charge, and silent, stalwart Jude, her beloved almost-twin. Vignettes strung together according to Jem's private logic allude to her education at different convent schools, the WWII games she plays with Jude, her fascination with St. Francis of Assisi (who "called everything Brother this and Sister that"). Throughout, hints dropped by an adult Jem reveal that "Sister Crazy" is not just a play name. As she grows up, Jem lapses into madness, tormented by the loss of the intimacies of childhood. Richler (daughter of the Canadian writer Mordecai Richler) perfectly channels Jem's wise-child voice. Though her narrative does not quite achieve the crystal clarity of Salinger's Glass family stories, she captures the allure and subtle perils of a similarly intense, hothouse upbringing.