We’re encouraged by the Romantics and the Freudians to think that childhood is when we are most ‘natural’ and least broken-in to cultural norms. However, in childhood we are also most intensely subject to the familial culture which surrounds us; the world can be interpreted only in the language and according to the value system we are given by parents and relatives and at school. Emma Richler’s new novel, Feed My Dear Dogs, and her earlier work, Sister Crazy (2001), capture vividly the closed world of one family. In the middle of both books the family moves from 1960s England to Montreal, but our attention isn’t drawn to the change and it is evident only in a few externals: in Canada there is ice hockey, a second home by a lake, and French spoken. The cultural life of a family may be so self-contained and self-referential that it can be transplanted into another continent and the difference will scarcely show.
The five Weiss siblings, three boys and two girls, are bright, witty, full of promise. The precise flavour of their cleverness, and their relationships and talk and behaviour, captures a particular epoch of middle-class English childhood: the transition in the 1960s and 1970s between the constraints of the past (servants, strict mealtimes, fixed codes of good behaviour) and the freedoms of the present (microwaves, Playstations, the agonised scruples of parents). The Weisses have servants (and servant problems) but they are refugees from Portugal or Hungary and called by their first names, not Cook or Nanny. The mother doesn’t work, but her daughters dream about careers rather than marriages. The family has a television but the children’s watching of it is strictly circumscribed. They’re allowed alcohol, but not chocolate except on special occasions. Their parents are amused rather than appalled when Harriet tries out rude words at the dinner table, but the girls bury a book of saints Harriet is given as a prize at the convent where they go to school, worried that their Jewish father will take offence. Jem’s brothers talk casually to her about menstruation; but they all internalise old-fashioned ideals of honour, poring over the Morte d’Arthur stories, playing out heroic rescues with their Action Men.
We know about these cultural shifts in the patterns of childhood and adult authority partly through the books written for and about English middle-class children. Richler’s representation of the Weiss family is in dialogue with that tradition, especially with E. Nesbit’s Bastables, the family in The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods and other books. The Weisses are like the Edwardian Bastables in their idealism, their restless aspiration, their chumminess, their embarrassment at sentimentality. Like the Bastables, they aren’t impossibly good; they’re touchy and sometimes they sulk or are mean. It’s no surprise when we find out that the Weisses read E. Nesbit; they are like the Bastables partly because they’ve read about them. (To bookish children all the worlds they read about are equally strange and equally accessible; they are not predisposed towards the present. Children still read Tom’s Midnight Garden – about a boy in the 1950s making connections with a late Victorian past – as if it was a contemporary novel.)
Sister Crazy and Feed My Dear Dogs show how the culture of a family can be formed by its collective reading habits. The Weisses have read The Little Prince, the Brontës, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Tintin, The Phantom Tollbooth; their mother reads Dickens to them. It isn’t only literature; everything is material for their imaginations to work on. They’re haunted by Hubble, Herschel, Cook and Shackleton; even accounts of light-speed or dark matter are retold in terms of Weiss family relationships:
In a spiral galaxy the orbits of things are speedier at the centre than at the edges, in the halo as it is known, something I can easily grasp if I think about us, our house a tempest of Weiss activity, yet in the great world as I see it, Jude on his expedition, say, or Mum out shopping, I imagine less speed and more caution at the edges, due to the unknown in the halo of things.
The huge effort of invention, or recollection, or both, with which a collective life is animated is Richler’s triumph in these books. With the close focus of a child she has gathered up the details and digressions which add up to the family personality: the way Harriet won’t let different foods touch on the plate, the way Jude lectures and informs Jem so that she both worships and is undermined by him, Ben’s impromptu games, Gus’s gourmandise, the way their father gets mad if anyone disassembles the newspaper before he does, the way their mother sings ‘My Time of Day’. Jem has to explain to Harriet that the nuns at school won’t understand the family jokes: they only work at home. ‘Barkis is willin’’ is Harriet’s favourite. After they’ve watched Gone with the Wind, one or other of them is forever raising a carrot to the sky and swearing: ‘As God is my witness, I will never go hungry again.’ It seems likely that a lot of Richler’s own family story is in here – the detail has that stamp of oddity which is a good indicator of borrowings from life – and the reader can be allowed some curiosity about that: the writer’s father was the novelist Mordecai Richler, and Emma, like Jem, was the middle one of five siblings.
Both books are framed by the grown-up Jem Weiss’s intermittent dialogue with someone – presumably a therapist – as she looks for explanations for her adult depression and self-harm. We are never told how Jem is earning her living or about her relationships outside the family; her adult story is swamped in the flood of childhood recollection. But her unhappiness shadows everything she remembers. Even at its most exuberant, the child narrative is never quite free from the adult’s interrogations. Rather than moving between two distinct voices, the narrative is a continuum in which the adult re-enters her child-voice in an attempt to recover something she still needs. (The adult quest is made to link with the children’s games of Percival and the Grail.) The child-voice is breathless, running on in long sentences, avoiding adult knowingness. The adult sections, despite their bleaker content, have essentially the same rhythmic character: ‘Faster and faster, it’s Hubble’s Law, speed increases with distance. Redshift. Frances! Don’t you see my house has collapsed! I can’t fix this thing, you can’t fix this thing! I don’t want anyone, I don’t need anyone, everybody fuck off.’
Both narratives suggest that it is precisely the overwhelming power of her childhood recollection that is the adult Jem’s predicament: in the brilliance of such a family there is danger for its individual members. How can these children ever deliver on all that is expected of them? How can they make a family as good as this when they grow up? Readers may feel some satisfaction at the idea that early brilliance is not good for you in the long run. There are certainly moments when one finds oneself taking sides against Jem’s presumption of her family’s specialness. The sweet-shop lady’s irritation, for instance, on board the boat to Canada, is surely reasonable enough?
In the souvenir and sweetie shop Harriet starts furiously rearranging the display of sweet rolls and little packets and boxes and so on and the shop woman glares at me. Me.
‘So unattractive!’ my sister says, quite cross. She’s right.
‘It’s not stealing,’ I tell the lady. ‘She’s making it neat for you. Pretty. This is Harriet, my sister. It’s OK.’
That woman carries on glaring at me.
The paradox that the family who are the inspiration are also the problem seems to be borne out in real life by the oddity of Richler having in some sense written the same book twice, as if there’s material in these childhood narratives which she doesn’t yet know how to leave behind. The deaths of Jem’s mother and brother in Feed My Dear Dogs feel odd because in Sister Crazy Frances and Gus live on into Jem’s adulthood. These deaths happen very late in the novel, and aren’t wholly prepared for in its earlier sections (the adult Jem ought surely to have registered the catastrophes, even if obliquely); they feel too convenient an alibi for Jem’s despairs. On the other hand, the Weiss family, second time round, are still engaging enough to sustain our interest. There’s no shortage of the vivid domestic detail, sharp dialogue and emotional complexity which were also Sister Crazy’s main strengths; though in Feed My Dear Dogs the digressions (for instance a three-page tour round Saint-Exupéry, Goebbels, Blake, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Muybridge) are more indulgent, and the book, at five hundred pages, is too long.
The analysis of why the Weiss family were not good for their middle daughter is subtle and precise. This is a portrait of a very anxious child. Even her own family perceive that she is attached to them in damaging ways. ‘You have to stop making everything to do with us,’ Jude says. ‘We are not the world.’ Jem worries about a casual remark of her mother’s, that she’d like to go on a moon-trip: so she wants to leave them, does she? She worries that Ben’s friends won’t know to give him his nuts and raisins when he stays with them, she worries whether Harriet will manage with school dinners. When she helps her father find the mayonnaise in the fridge, she pretends at first that she can’t see it either, so as not to hurt his feelings. She chooses her friends (about whom we hear next to nothing) by finding the ‘ones who can relax around Dad’. Jude’s decision to go travelling is so traumatic that the novel can’t get past it: in Feed My Dear Dogs the narration of his farewell barbecue is endlessly prolonged and postponed and only really ends with the end of the book itself. Jem’s nerves are ever-taut, expecting to face the anti-semitism she’s learned about from her father. She’s haunted by the imagery of suffering and redemption learned at the convent, but feels it compromised at its root in relation to her Jewish heritage: she takes on the worst of both worlds, the guilt and the persecution.
One of the more surprising ways in which Richler’s books are reminiscent of an Edwardian tradition is in her treatment of the mother-figure. We might expect the portrait of the 1960s wife and mother we have become used to: a woman racked by the contradictions of the roles required of her, chafing at her husband’s casual presumption of precedence, hungry for her own fulfilment. Frances Weiss, though, feels instead like the mother in The Railway Children: high-minded, suffering, luminous with love, her moral authority more transcendent and possibly more problematic for her children than her husband’s can ever be. Frances is patient, resourceful, a genius in the sickroom. When Jem steals from Frances’s purse she finds coins in her pocket with sweet messages attached. Jem says she loves the pendant her mother wears; Frances, stroking her head, ‘taking the opportunity . . . to untangle some of the mess up there’, gently corrects her: ‘It’s lovely, but you don’t really love it, Jem. You love people, not things.’ When Jem is tempted to dislike the sweet-shop lady, she reproaches herself: ‘She . . . has probably had a hard life like many, many people in this world as Mum keeps reminding me.’
The children of such a saint-mother are likely to feel bottomlessly inadequate to repay her sacrifice, or match it. ‘Mum has a knack for inspiring devotion and selflessness, whereas I do not,’ Jem fears. Perhaps Frances’s suicide at the end of Feed My Dear Dogs does have an emotional rightness. The adult Jem is bewildered, not knowing how to transform herself from a flawed needy child into the impenetrably powerful woman she has made out of her mother. This is the one crisis through which Frances can’t help her daughter. Richler finds in the mother’s suicide the only sign strong enough for Jem’s feeling of abandonment.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.