In her latest novel, Emma Richler comes across as an unapologetic maximalist. If minimalism presupposes that less is more, Richler’s aesthetic in this exuberant, freewheeling work is the precise opposite.
At the heart of Be My Wolff are Rachel and Zachariah, lovers who were raised as brother and sister. The cosseted daughter of London-based Russian émigrés, Rachel is an illustrator who sees patterns everywhere – “her eye, a kaleidoscope.” Zach is adopted, an orphan who arrived on the scene with one yellow sweater, a cloud of curls, and balled fists that he calls “my fives.” The pair’s father, Lev, despises Zach; Rachel is caught between her love for Zach and her loyalty to Papa. For his part, Zach urges Rachel to choose between them – a conflict that fuels the story.
As kids, when Zach tells Rachel that he doesn’t want to know who his real parents are, she replies, “We should make them up! Make you up. A whole history! In history.” The pair creates a series of books, with hand-stitched bindings and colour illustrations (a few are included in the text), which chronicle Zach’s imagined family background via a surrogate called Sam. As an adult, Rachel excavates this project, the contents of which form much of the narrative. Zach’s invented biography makes good psychological sense and provides an escape from the taboo nature of the siblings’ bond (though they anxiously remind each other that they are not blood relations: “I am not your brother,” Zach says. “I am your Wolff”).
In creating her alternative narrative, Rachel invokes history, folklore, and fairy tales. And in telling her story, Richler incorporates the perspectives of Charles Dickens, Tsar Alexander I, and others. In fact, there are so many references to historical figures, Victorian slang, Renaissance swear words, and boxing jargon that the author feels compelled to include a list of historical figures and a lengthy glossary. At times, the intertextual gamesmanship is just too much: it’s too distracting, too mannered, too confounding. It creates distance rather than intimacy, because readers are continuously trying to find their feet.
Layered here and there are minutiae about the nature and habits of wolves. These factual bits are written in a more direct, distilled style, and offer welcome contrast from the surrounding flights of fancy. They also shed light on the longings Rachel and Zach succumb to: “Wolves howl for joy, in play, in the hunt, in appeal,
reunion, loneliness, stress and sorrow. A howl will last from half a second to eleven or more, and each wolf calls in a distinctive voice so one wolf can recognize the other over distance, howling with shifts in pitch and harmony, chord and discord.”
Ultimately, Be My Wolff is a story about stories. So it is a bit ironic that the richest parts of the novel belong to Rachel and Zach in the narrative present, rather than to the fictions within the fiction. Regardless, one can’t help but admire the prodigious imagination and antic energy on display here.