Cricket in a Fist: Book Review
by Bev Sandell Greenberg

Published in Prairie Fire
2008

This debut novel about four generations of women gives new meaning to the term “dysfunctional family.” The title comes from the Holocaust memoir Liberation. According to its author, Abraham Sutzkever, one can never quite escape the past; it is like a cricket caught in a fist.

Lewis’s novel deals with memories and family secrets. At the outset, thirteen-year-old Jasmine has just taken the bus from Ottawa to Toronto in order to run away from home. A crisis ensues when she wants to move in with her sister Agatha and search for their estranged mother. The remainder of the novel consists of vignettes revealing the family dynamics, the sisters’ unconventional upbringing and the events precipitating Jasmine’s disappearance.

Nine years earlier, their mother Ginny sustained a head injury that altered her personality. Soon after, she disavowed her family and reinvented herself as Virginia Morgan, a self-help guru. She still bears resentment against her mother Tamar and her grandmother Esther, the obsessive Holocaust survivors who raised her. No great surprise that Virginia’s best-selling books advocate liberating oneself from the past.
Agatha and Jasmine’s family background is complicated to say the least. Virginia’s ex-husband Steven is the biological father of Jasmine, but not of Agatha. His best friend Asher impregnated Virginia during a one-night stand but never stuck around to meet his daughter. After Virginia moved out, Steven married his lover Lara, whose terminally ill mother lives with them. During their childhoods, Agatha and Jasmine spent time living with Tamar’s house and often frequented her beauty salon.

Written in spare, lucid prose, the story is told by three unreliable narrators–Agatha, Jasmine and Tamar. Often the same event is retold from several points of view, heightening readers’ curiosity as to what really happened. Also woven into the narrative are Asher’s letters to Steven and excerpts from Virginia’s books, as well as brief incidents told as flashbacks.

Of all the characters, Agatha and Jasmine are the most sympathetic in their quest to come to terms with their disjointed family history. In each case, Lewis excels at portraying the vivid imaginations of these characters as children and teenagers.
In one instance, Agatha demonstrates her naïve interpretation of the term “concentration camp.”

I pictured Oma Esther, white perm and all, playing the piano in a camp cabin. Whenever she made mistakes, camp counsellors barked in her ears, “Concentrate!” I guessed that was why Oma Esther was so meticulous with her cooking; surely it took camp-trained concentration to get all the ingredients exactly right. (136)
In another scene, Jasmine fantasizes about being approached by a pimp at a mall.
. . . Jasmine was ready for a hand to fall on her arm. His fingers would be long and white, his hair black, his cheekbones high. He’d have musky breath with an undercurrent of mint, because pimps always chewed gum. He’d grab her by the hand and push her into a small, dark place. (78)

There is a noteworthy supporting cast of characters, which includes Steven, Tamar and Oma Esther, whose contradictions and obsessions render them human and credible.

In short, Cricket in a Fist is an evocative tale about loss, betrayal and secrets of the past. Readers will undoubtedly be gobsmacked by all the revelations.

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Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

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