Murdering the Millefeuilles
- Sister Crazy by Emma Richler
Flamingo, 258 pp, £12.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 00 711822 8
Perhaps one of the functions of toys is to introduce children to disappointment. When Star Wars was the thing (the first time round) I was given a Darth Vader costume for my birthday. I didn’t really expect it to make me seven feet tall, telekinetic, nifty with a light sabre and everything else that you get in exchange for giving yourself over to the dark side, but did hope for something approximate. The inevitable plastic pinny and face-mask (held onto the head by an elastic band) fell miserably short. But they did, I suppose, teach me something about the boundaries between imagination and plastic (as well as something about the cynicism of corporate merchandising).
Jemima Weiss, the narrator of Emma Richler’s first novel, is as a nine-year-old devoted to Action Man.
With each purchase of an item from the Action Man directory, you were awarded stars in proportion to its value . . . When you had collected 21 stars you won a free Action Man . . . I chose Talking Man, who was an innovation at the time . . . On the box, things looked good. There was an actual-size painting of a soldier on it, dressed in an RAF officer’s uniform, his mouth ajar in mid-speech; he was clearly caught up in some grave moment and the words would be jaunty and ironic . . . But they really ought to have shown Talking Man naked on the packaging. A small picture of his torso would have been enough . . . His chest was a mass of perforations, like grotesquely enlarged pores . . . A plastic ring dangled from the middle of his back, below the shoulder blades, and attached to the ring was a long flesh-coloured string.
She finds the object of her disappointment ugly, disgusting. When the Weiss family move to Canada not long afterwards, Jem leaves Talking Man behind, ‘accidentally on purpose’. ‘Talking Man’ is the title of the first chapter of this short novel, and it seems fair to see the doll as having a certain symbolic value. Abandoning it is a refusal to accept disappointment, to acknowledge the unattractive practicalities of real life. Sister Crazy is the monologue of someone who hasn’t been able to leave her childhood behind.
There are five Weiss children: Ben, Jude, Jem, Harriet and Gus. They have a mother and a father. For several years they live in England, their mother’s country, and then they move to Canada, their father’s. And very little happens. They go to school, go on holiday, play games, fight, make up, laugh a lot, eat a lot of meals. The Weiss family is not dysfunctional. But Jem, narrating the story in her thirties, is seriously screwed up. She has severe depressive episodes, and a predilection for cutting herself. One of the ways she tries to deal with her depression, ‘besides looking back on good times and trying to fathom them’, is to write a book of rules in her head. Rule number eight is: ‘When you are going through dark times, pack up your knives and give them to a friend.’