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Book Reviews

Feed My Dear Dogs

by Emma Richler

Emma Richler has followed up Sister Crazy, her successful book of linked short stories, with a longer piece of fiction about a family. And yes, it’s the same family, and even the lowliest fact-checker can see that her digressive 10-year old-narrator, Jem, shares more than a few similarities with Em.

Jem’s got a dishevelled sportswriter father, with his hard outer shell and soft inside. Her mother embodies all things beautiful. She’s got four bouncy siblings, and when we meet the Weiss family, they are preparing to set sail from England to the father’s native city, the far-off, exotic Montreal.

Jem is a buoyant, rambling narrator. Her paragraphs flit from one subject to the next, tumbling by and plopping to rest with a “Right” or “OK” or “Oh well” or “Never mind.” Her tone blends childlike naïvete and precocious knowledge. The family’s housekeeper can’t come with the Weisses on their voyage because of “love and sex.” But 30 pages later, in case she was sounding too childish, Jem explains the recession velocity of a distant galaxy.

Mostly she thinks about the other Weisses. “You have to stop making everything to do with us,” her slightly older brother, Jude, says to her. “We are not the world, the Weiss family is not the world.…” But to Jem they are the universe, and she is determined to explore each corner’s slightest detail, down to the contents of the diapers of her little brother, Gus.

Who can tell how long these ideas were germinating, but Feed My Dear Dogs lurches about in such a flutter of activity that it gives off the scent of being hastily written. More importantly, and regardless of the timespan, there is a layer missing in the novel, a layer of distillation.

The book is dedicated to Richler’s siblings, her mother, and her rather famous father, Mordecai. There is no doubting Richler’s intent and her willingness to craft a loving portrayal out of the experience of these individuals. The resulting novel is bursting with nostalgic love. But the key word here is bursting. It’s messy. There is no sharpening or tightening of these childhood memories, resulting in a loose, unfocused book, muddy when it needs to be filtered, distancing in its flood of detail when it should be drawing the reader close.

One problem is that there is a lineage of too many good examples out there, from the considered artistry of A Long Day’s Journey into Night all the way to Swing Low, Miriam Toews’s examination of her father’s depressive life. Compare Richler’s pages upon pages to the single first paragraph of Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, a piece of writing that distills a whole family dynamic down to a few beautiful words. Richler’s narrator likes to ramble. Fine, but unfortunately so does the book. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Richler loses any sense of the struggles, conflicts, and drama of families – the stuff outsiders want to see.

Instead, the overarching impression here is that the Weisses are nice. The children are intelligent. They read a lot of books and spout off information on dark matter and King Arthur. They crack wise and they become, like clever kids anywhere, grating after a few hours in their company. By midpoint of the novel there is no change. They are still nice, verbose, showoffy children. It’s this niceness, the author’s adoration of the family, that makes them seem faintly unreal. “My mother’s undies are fairly extraordinary,” she writes. “Gus has a lovely nose, I must say,” she says later. “And it looks an awful lot like Mum’s.”

This particular family album has a lovely mother, bearish father, but my dear dogs, at around page 300 of their existence, what I wouldn’t have given for a real Richler shit-disturber, a rogue, someone who could pinch mum, punch dad, shake the kids, cause concern, rattle some life into the fiction. Even if one of the existing siblings lurched into some unexpected situation. No matter what their real-life counterparts were like, this story needs to be lifted out of reverent adoration. Out of – dare I use the dreaded word again? – niceness.

The buoyancy of the narrator does offer up occasional light spots. When she gets too pious, Jem’s siblings jokingly threaten to crucify her, even dragging out a hammer and nails at one point. But more often the novel’s pleasures come from a distant place. Any reader curious about Mordecai Richler will get a small thrill from the descriptions of Yakob Weiss’s attempts to teach his daughter the “rope a dope” during impromptu boxing lessons. It is, one can imagine, the ultimate insider’s description of Mordecai’s home life. But a book needs to stand on its own.

Feed My Dear Dogs is a sprawling, appreciative attempt. It’s a book shot through with love and let down by its own shapelessness. Regardless of source material and real life, on the page, this is a family whose experiences could use a little more deliberation, a little more fiction.