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Sister Crazy

by Emma Richler

There’s a lot going on in Sister Crazy, Emma Richler’s debut novel that manages to mix references to St. Francis of Assisi, champagne, cowboys, nuns, and famous films like Jules et Jim without hitting a single pretentious note. Best of all, the dysfunctional family equation – unhappy childhood equals crazy adult – is refreshingly turned on its head. Instead we witness narrator Jemima Weiss’s reluctant emergence from the sweet cocoon of her happy family. By the time the novel reaches its conclusion the reader is convinced that the Weiss nest would indeed be a hard one to fly from.

Jem believes that the gloomy terrain of solitary adulthood is best avoided by indulging a ferocious case of familial nostalgia; most of the novel describes happy childhood interludes with her brothers, sister, mother and father. Jem’s unhappy present-day life is only ever alluded to in occasional paragraphs, though to great effect.

Richler doesn’t go out of her way to create an extra-wacky family to catch the reader’s attention, nor does she saddle her narrator with an excess of quirks that jeopardize her believability. Richler assumes that the reader can and will keep up without a surplus of explanations regarding Jem’s mental illness.

The humour is subtle and slightly wicked: “I have just seen a film which I think is pretty important viewing if you are inclined toward a love encounter with a person who is not a member of your family. Most people are, including some nuns I have known.” It is precisely this idea of seeking “a love encounter” outside the family that seems to threaten Jem’s chance for happiness as an adult. Think family romance – mercifully devoid of an incest sub-plot. A terrific debut.