Emma Richler’s first novel in 12 years, Be My Wolff, cannot be read casually. For the duration of the story (really, stories), you will live among the Wolffs. The submersion into this world will be longer than anticipated because of the time needed to be able to truly dive into the sheer amount of detail and reference in every line. If you skim through, you will not give this tantalizing tale the justice it deserves. The detail is the novel.
In the overarching story, that of the love between Rachel and Zach Wolff, no great events happen from page to page for most of the book. The story is in their descriptions of each other, their fanciful and eccentric ways of speaking and the world they have created.
They live in an old house that they fixed up themselves in Camden, London, their small kingdom where the people that make up the neighbourhood are characters in their imagined story – such as the mean old lady they have called “Baba Yaga” (a witch figure in Russian fairy tales).
After opening the book, you immediately understand why it took 12 years to write it, and you very soon become aware of the knowledge the author must have in order to put it together. Richler says she had much of the knowledge beforehand, and when new information was needed, she found it. There was no long period of research before the writing began. When she got a feeling that a certain phrase needed to be in Russian, she looked it up or asked a friend.
Richler, the author of Sister Crazy and the memoir Feed My Dear Dogs, was working on a different novel when an image of an 18th-century boxer kept appearing in her mind.
“I trust those things,” she says in an interview. “Everything is connected in strange ways.”
She knew there was a reason she kept on reaching for books about Victorian sewers and rats, and she realized that the two topics could fit together, aided by her longtime interest in Russian literature. “It’s mysterious how things come about.”
The star-crossed lovers who are the main characters of this tale first meet when Zach is adopted into Rachel’s family as a young boy. Originally from Russia, the Wolffs had immigrated to Paris and then to London and now live within a myriad of cultures.
Zach becomes a Wolff despite the fact that his adoptive father never truly accepted him. Lev Wolff simply could not understand how his son could love boxing over more scholarly pursuits, but as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that he does indeed love him. Ultimately though, he is unable to reconcile this with his children’s romantic relationship and banishes his son forever.
Rachel and Zach are the centre of each other’s universe. From the very first page, Rachel describes Zach, observing and anticipating his every move. They spend their days waiting for a time when they can come home and see each other again. Their home is not the beautiful place they created and inhabit, it is each other. As Rachel watches Zack in a game of cricket, she describes him in detail before silently thinking, “‘The beauty of the boy!’ She muses, ‘The beauty of this boy…’ she loves him so much. He is her native place.”
Scenes from their childhood are described in various sections of the novel, slowly making sense of who they are now. Love – a common theme in fiction – is described in a heart-wrenchingly honest way. Richler doesn’t hold anything back. The same thing is done with Rachel and Zach’s relationship itself. They do not hide from the public or from each other, even as many turn against them for their family ties. And between them, games and dishonesty are an impossibility – they are so much one being that they may as well be lying to themselves.
Although the story is mostly about love, it is also about many other things: history, science, music and art flow gracefully through the story.
When Zach is upset about their mother not being there to see the house they created, Rachel tells him, “We make our own stories,” and this is what she proceeds to do for the remainder of the novel: create a compelling history in place of the one Zach does not have.
These stories create an element of historical fiction within the novel. Famous figures and times are included, along with newly minted details. According to this history, Zach comes from a long line of boxers and was destined to be one himself. Even as boxing threatens Zach’s life on a daily basis, Rachel understands his need to fight. They developed their passion for boxing together.
The word Richler uses to describe the process of creating the novel is the same feeling you will experience reading it – “intense.” A few words with the author is all you need to see exactly how this book was made; it could only come to exist in such a complex and creative mind.
She speaks about Be My Wolff as if it created itself and she was merely like a sculptor chipping away at a shape that is already there. If her hand reaches out for a book about science in the library, she knows it was meant to happen and includes it in the piece. When asked why the novel ended the way it did, she simply states: “It just had to.