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.’
From time to time the book is addressed to an anonymous, perhaps absent, second-person listener, whose identity remains shadowy. At first it seems that this may be a lover: ‘Just before you left me for the first time I had a dream and you were in it.’ We later learn that this person is a woman, but not her name, which Jem refuses to tell another friend when asked. Then it transpires that she is more likely a therapist than a lover: ‘Do you think it’s cruel that in the hour you have for me there are only fifty minutes? . . . One day I think you should take me home and let me sit at your table, a stranger there, to watch you with your family.’ So perhaps Jem’s narrative is an analysand’s confession: if she can fathom the good times, dredge up her trauma, she may find a reason for the dark times, and a way out of them.
And towards the end, it seems as if a horrifying revelation is about to be made, exposing the darkness at the heart of her idyllic childhood. She goes into her parents’ bedroom, ‘looking for shirt cardboard because I am doing a project and need to make a base for a battlefield’. Her father is shaving, so she asks: ‘Dad? I need some shirt cardboard. Can I – may I look in your drawer?’
Someone else has been at the shirt cardboard because there are a lot of shirts in their plastic sleeves from the cleaner’s but no cardboard. Harriet probably. Making something weird I bet. I have to search right to the bottom and I touch a tangly mess of belts. Not belts. It’s like spaghetti of shiny black straps with squares of leather attached. It’s in two parts. It looks like what they strap on victims in horror-type films before the mad doctor zaps them with electric charges for experimental purposes. Yikes.
But the cliché is subverted: it’s only her grandfather’s phylacteries, which her father has kept even though he doesn’t use them, no more sinister than the ‘cross which is not a cross’ that her mother wears under her clothes because Jem’s father ‘won’t be very happy if she wears it on the outside’. So neither of her parents is quite as secular as they would like to pretend, but this is hardly the kernel of abuse that the reader (whose relationship to Jem is not dissimilar from her therapist’s) has been waiting for, and that turns out not to exist. Her childhood really was as happy as she believes it to have been: her father may have been a little distant at times (he enjoyed mild fame as a sports columnist in the newspapers), a little irascible at others, and prone to laugh at his children when he shouldn’t have, when it was crueller than he knew; but this isn’t sufficient cause for Jem’s adult misery and self-mutilation (which isn’t to say that just because her depression doesn’t originate in trauma it is any less real or unpleasant).
Jem’s problem is conveyed by the novel’s form as much as anything: she is locked in the past; her sense of time is deficient. It can be very unclear, particularly towards the beginning of the book, at what stage in her life the events she is describing take place. Chapter Two, for example (there are seven chapters in all, corresponding, but not too schematically, to the seven members of the Weiss family), begins: ‘My dad is really grumpy now.’ This sounds like the voice of a child, an impression corroborated by a fantasy about being Doc Holliday a page or two later. Jem and her parents are on the way to the chemist to pick up a herbal remedy for her depression, and she describes the unpleasant side effects of other medication she’s taken, which sounds too strong to be given to children. And then she reminisces about going to bars and drinking Mâcon-Villages with her father, which used to happen before the trip to the chemist, so she can’t be that young. And finally she has to go to the airport to fly home. She has been visiting her parents, taking a holiday from adulthood; but trying to go back to childhood only seems to make her more miserable. In which case morbidly fathoming the good times is the worst thing she could be doing: there is nothing therapeutic or cathartic about it. In this sense Sister Crazy could be described as an anti-memoir, challenging the idea that endlessly revisiting your past is good for you.
Sister Crazy isn’t just an assault on memoir, however; the past that Jem needs to break free from is seductive, as it must be for the novel to work: not only would it be unreadable otherwise, but there would be no tension between what she needs and what she wants. The events she describes are banal, but engrossing in their banality. This is largely a question of style: Richler has a fine eye for detail (always ready to see the everyday in the macabre: getting rid of your knives ‘will mean an expensive period of shopping at Marks & Spencer for ready meals’), and gives Jem a kookily colloquial voice that manages (most of the time, anyway) to stay the right side of irritating. The passages about Jem’s brothers and sister tend to work better than those about her parents; the relationships between the children are edgier.
Closest in age to Jem is Jude, 15 months older than her, and the one she plays with most, her partner in Action Man adventures. She is, essentially, in love with him, and sexuality dogs their relationship. It is Jude, curiously (or perhaps not), who is keener to introduce Barbie to their games: ‘Even episodes with the French Resistance girl of the one-track mind (Vive la France!) degenerated into dates. Crawling through darkened forests, sabotaging power lines, setting booby traps and gathering secret munition drops, Jude’s man still managed to suggest dinner and dancing.’ When Jude grows up, he becomes a foreign correspondent with ‘a knack of choosing to investigate a place that is about to be torn apart by hostilities’. There is an unhappy episode when, ‘breezing through town, taking a few days off’, he takes Jem out ‘on a date’. They eat at a Chinese restaurant, and ‘Jude has no idea what to say to me but suddenly he gets up and tells me we will dance, because he feels sorry for the sax player who is pretty good and no one is dancing.’
The sexual tension between them is most strained, unsurprisingly, when they are teenagers: ‘When I became girly in ways harder and harder to hide, things got a little tense.’ They’re in the garden with Ben on a hot Saturday afternoon; Jude takes his shirt off and suggests Jem does the same, becoming angry when she refuses. ‘He probably won’t remember if I tell him about it now, which I won’t, as he doesn’t like that kind of thing.’ And you can’t help feeling he might be right, even if it means that he wouldn’t be able to write such a charged account of their childhood (and why would he want to, when he has more pressing things to write about, like wars?).
Jude is 15. The Weiss parents are going out for the evening. Jude has a date, so after having a bath he puts on a woolly hat to stop his hair going too curly. (‘Is it snowing in here?’ his father asks, a typically bad joke.) Jude’s date arrives to a frosty reception from all his siblings.
‘Hi, I’m Gabrielle!’
Yuck. I nod at her, pursing my mouth a little and say ‘Hey’ without a lot of energy. Ben offers juice very politely and Gus pays no attention at all . . . Harriet swivels in double-quick time and grips the back of her chair.
‘Hello!’ she announces in a really strange way, like a television newscaster. ‘Jude is not here!’
Gabrielle has brought a present for them, of which they are at once suspicious: ‘Why is the date cooking an acre of millefeuilles for kids she doesn’t even know?’ Later, Jude comes back slightly drunk, complaining about his boring date, and Jem suggest they play Murder on the Orient Express. This involves taking it in turns to stab the millefeuilles and complain about Gabrielle.
‘This is for your tiny little boobs!’ says Jude, getting a bit too specific for me. Never mind. It will do him good.
‘This is for bringing millefeuilles.’ Ben is very good at murderous expressions. It appeals to his gothic imagination, I believe . . .
‘This is for boring a Weiss!’ I announce, and stab the cake about 82 times until Ben and Jude drag me off. We go back to our bagels peaceably, feeling much better.
It’s gruesome and comic, harmless and brutal at once, the act at one remove from the desire – in a different kind of novel they’d just have murdered the girlfriend.
It’s hard to see where the book might end: childhood contains an endless number of episodes like this, and the possibility of a bad-dad denouement is deflated. But there is a moment in Jem’s life at which it stops: Jude leaves. He goes off to travel round the world, the first stage on his road to foreign correspondenthood. He is away for Christmas, and Jem’s father, without thinking, takes Jude’s chair from the table to make more room for the others. This happens at the end of Chapter Six; Chapter Seven, ‘No Time’, includes a confused discussion between Jem and Ben about post-Newtonian physics, which Jem wants to apply to her own life. But the only place time works the way Jem would like it to is in stories.