Sins of the mothers

By Naomi K. Lewis
Goose Lane Editions
268 pages, $19.95

Review by Catherine Nutter

Is it possible to start a new life, with a new identity, and completely erase the slate of self? Naomi K. Lewis’s debut novel Cricket in a Fist explores the lives of four generations of women who all struggle with latent burdens bestowed upon them by the past.

Unfortunately, the past isn’t easy to ditch. It’s always lurking just outside the door, waiting to burst in the room and be acknowledged.

Told in multiple voices, and shifting forward and back in time over half a century, Cricket in a Fist is the story of a mother and daughter who immigrated to Ottawa after surviving the Holocaust, and two subsequent generations of daughters. It’s a moving and psychologically complex tale, in which the phenomenon of survivor guilt colours the lives of many of the characters.

The novel revolves around ideas of self, identity, and the strange personality traits sometimes generated in those who live through horrible experiences that others are not lucky enough to survive. Each mother passes down the echo of previous trauma to her daughter in unintended and unexpected ways.

Concentration camp survivor Ester cultivates a life-long obsessive relationship to food. Her daughter Tamar’s cold and distant, beauty salon-based perfectionism is a reaction to having hidden unseen in a neighbor’s house for the years her parents were in the camp. Tamar’s split second decision to run when the Nazis were hauling away her parents taints the rest of her life, which is relentlessly focused on physical appearance, both her own and that of the patrons of her salon.

The desire to escape self is at its extreme in accident-prone and unattractive Ginny. Not only does she carry the burdens of a mother and grandmother who survived the Holocaust, she has herself survived a bicycle accident in which her father was killed. A head injury and a bout of amnesia give Ginny a dark idea; she becomes a “Willing Amnesiac,” walking away from her life and family to adopt the clean slate persona of J. Virginia Morgan, self-help guru extraordinaire.

“Amnesia, traditionally understood as a condition imposed by physical or psychological trauma, can also be a way of life, consciously adopted and lived,” writes J. Virginia Morgan in one of her many self-help manifestos. In abandoning her former self, she also abandons her two daughters, passing the burdens of the past on to them in her attempt to become free. Thus we get a glimpse into the hereditary nature of survivor syndrome.

A good read, with spot-on portrayal of the youngest generation, Cricket‘s only fault is that its many transitions of voice and time are somewhat confusing at first, making the book difficult to warm up to. The opening onslaught of names and characters and timeframes is a bit like meeting your significant other’s entire family for the first time at a huge reunion.

But while some diligence is required to keep abreast of time, place, and character identity, the close attention is worth the effort. Lewis’s portrayal of women at all stages of life and mental health is compassionate and candid. With so few Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories in person, Cricket reminds us that the past is never as far away as it might seem. It is also an ironic jab at the self-help “gurus” out there who make their living selling false hope and quick fixes. You can walk away from the past, but it’s liable to follow.

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