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     Volume 4 Issue 33 | February 11, 2005 |

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Book Review

Peeling back the years

Elena Seymenliyska

Jem Weiss, a nine-year-old in a deerstalker hat, is the middle of five children in a family that encourages enthusiasms. One of hers is Sherlock Holmes and, like him, Jem appreciates the importance of minutiae. Her family is another enthusiasm and she records, in great detail, its characteristics, in-jokes and code words.

Weiss 1 is Ben, a scholarly, absent-minded boy with a gothic imagination. Weiss 2 is Jude, her almost-twin and soul-mate, a strong, silent type. Weiss 4 is Harriet, her arch and artistic little sister, who likes to talk to animals and mimic Blanche DuBois. And Weiss 5 is Gus, the children's favourite toy, a delicate, asthmatic boy who quotes Saint-Exupéry.

At the head of the clan is Yaakov, a whisky-drinking, cigar-smoking Jewish sportswriter who stomps through the house like a cowboy and joyfully treats his children as personal slaves. Frances, meanwhile, is the heart of the clan, a former model who reigns over her brood with unflappable elegance, good humour and saintly patience. Yaakov has a big thing for Frances, a love-blindness verging on mania shared by all the children.

"Big thing" and "love-blindness" are just two of the stock phrases peppered through Jem's narrative, together with exclamations such as "Whoa!", "Yay!" and "Bloody!" Film, song and book references are another feature, with lines such as "It's a bad day at Black Rock" and "Baby, it's cold outside" a shorthand hiding layers of family meaning. Jem takes it upon herself to uncover all these layers, meticulously recording key events, such as the family's move from England to Canada, as well as trivia such as her convent school's complex rules on footwear.

The narrative is as elaborate as the minutiae it describes. At its best, it has a wonderful specificity: Jude smells "like rocks with moss on them, like earth, sometimes like butter, and often like bonfires or smoky bacon crisps"; the family dog sits "in that wonky position he favours, meant to mislead, one hip slung out to the side in a show of casual behaviour". At its worst, it is logorrhoea gone rampant, spoiling jokes, swamping descriptions and slowing the story's flow.

Feed My Dear Dogs is Emma Richler's second go at telling what is, essentially, an autobiographical story. The daughter of the Canadian Jewish author Mordecai Richler, she is the middle child of a family of five and grew up in London and Montreal. She worked as an actress for 10 years, training which reveals itself in a knack for the telling gesture or the perfectly delivered phrase. Her debut, Sister Crazy, was a much shorter, sharper work, which introduced the Weiss family through a series of closely observed vignettes. Many of these anecdotes are recycled in this follow-up, padded out with references to science, history, literature and religion (the first chapter alone brings in Goebbels, Blake, Scott of the Antarctic, the Apollo moon landings, the law of gravity and the structure of the eye).

In both books, Richler acts as guardian of her family's memories. Her happy childhood is plagued by the awareness that, one day, all this will come to an end. Like a female Peter Pan, Jem doesn't want to grow up and returns again and again to "the old things in their right places". But Richler also has a deeply troubled adult narrator hovering at the margins: Sister Crazy alludes to a nervous breakdown and a filial fall-out; Feed My Dear Dogs is overshadowed by bereavement; and both feature brief, opaque exchanges with an analyst.

"Forgetting is exile," Jem notes at the close of this novel. "I remember everything. I will not be a stranger in a strange land." The only problem is that Richler remembers too much.

This review was first published in the Guardian


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