Excerpt: Be My Wolff
Widely heralded for her bestselling first novel (Feed My Dear Dogs) and award-winning stories (Sister Crazy, also nominated for the Orange Prize), Emma Richler finally returns with a dazzling major novel with the power of A.S. Byatt's Possession, the wit and wonder of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life--about a sister and her adopted brother with a one-of-a-kind connection: a profoundly moving, original love story about the unbreakable ties that bind, and the choices we make or create for ourselves.


Zachariah and Rachel are brother and sister. Well, not exactly. They are star-crossed lovers. Well, not exactly. Rachel is the cherished daughter of a Russian family living in London--the richly imagined, mysterious Wolffs; Zach is her parents' adopted son who arrived from the orphanage with one sweater, a head of curls and a dexterous set of fists. As children, they became as close as two people can be. But when they crossed a forbidden line, there was no going back. Now, as an adult, coping with their father's furious rebuttal of Zach, Rachel sets herself the task of inventing a family history for her beloved. And so she brings to life his imagined ancestry--from a tavern-educated boxer in Dickensian times, to a Hussar at the Battle of Borodino during the Napoleonic Wars--even as their troubles in present-day Camden Town build to yet another point of no return. Cartwheeling through history, filled with art and science, fairy tales and folk songs, tsars and foundlings, epic battles in the prize ring and on the Eastern Front, and characters that take over our hearts, Be My Wolff is riveting--wondrous, funny and tragic and of astonishing imagination and beauty.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpt

“Marry me, Rachel.”
“Not yet.”
“Tomorrow, Rachel. Marry me.”
“Maybe tomorrow.”
“There is no common blood between us. Say it,” pleads Zachariah.
“There is no common blood between us,” murmurs Rachel.
“I am not your brother.”
“I know.”
He traces her face with his swollen fingers, across the brow bones and down the zygomatics, and along the jaw from earlobe to chin, sweeping away the brine as he goes.
“I am your Wolff,” she replies.
Let the day begin.
 
·          
 
Zachariah crams his pockets, straps on a watch, skips to the loo for a splash.

“Skip to the loo, my DAR-ling!” sings Rachel, stroking the bed where Zach lay, moving into that place. I smell the smell of a Russian soul. If she were a dog, she would see the shape of the smell he has left in this imprint on the sheets, she could make an olfactory portrait of the man in his absence, yes. If she were a dog with a twentyfold amount of pri­mary receptors and an ability to detect an odour at concentrations one hundred times smaller than man’s, she could see him in scent. A dog can distinguish between molecules of smell that have mirror symme­try, virtually identical, but drastically different, such as caraway and peppermint.

In Rachel’s dreams, Zachariah is sometimes a dog. Papa says this con­fusion is a well-known feature of sleep and dreaming, because there is a disconnection of brain hemispheres in the dormant callosus, between the hemisphere for recognition of speech and the hemisphere for recog­nition of faces. Rachel dreams Zachariah in various shapes—dog, wolf, bird, boy—and then wakes to the man, seeing him always in infinite detail, taking note this morning, for instance, as he exits the bathroom, of the overnight change in hue round his swollen sparkler, the emer­gence into lighter shades of blue and yellow, Belcher blue and yellow.

Don’t fight today.

“Whatever happened?” she asks. “The other day? You never said. Between you and Sandbags Shaw?”

Sandbag, Rach. It’s Sandbag.

“Sandbag, then.”

“Got to fly, Rach! Tell you later.”

“You won’t.”

“It was nothing,” he tells her. “A barney, a mere scrap. Man’s an idiot. Hit him in the head, there’s an echo! Blow in one ear, snuff a candle out the other end! Empty garret. With breezes blowing through it.”

Sandbag Shaw.

Rachel mistakes the name accidentally-on-purpose, because it irks her, hurts to utter. Shaw is an ogre in the forest.
 
Professionally, Wolff and Shaw fought twice and stand at 1–1, Zach losing the first, but winning the return, the title fight. It was Zach’s Pyr­rhic victory, Rachel decries, because of the damage done that freezing January night when the two men fought at light welter on the undercard of a name fighter who had drawn a big crowd. Theirs, however, was the battle of distinction and Zach became a name thereafter, for his fine win and gameness. Zach fought again too soon, defended his title too soon while still carrying the pain he would not own to of the orbital fracture Shaw inflicted in that famous return, a fracture entailing a legacy of recurring headache and double vision Zach cannot shake. Yet, in the usual hype of the pre-fight medical, Wolff was declared in prime condi­tion for the bout that would prove to be his last, against a sharp Geor­gian bruiser named Kubriashvili.

The Georgian was a walk-in fighter who punched at crazy angles, had a thunderous left hook and a brazen right-hand lead and was known not to be above raking the eyes, and hitting on the break and other indelica­cies. Moments before the bell to end the third round, Kubriashvili blind­sided the ref to butt out of a clinch, using his head, or “third fist” as it is sometimes known, the hardest part of the body, to open a spectacular cut on Zach’s cheekbone, those sculpted zygomatics leaving him more than usually prone to cuts. In the following round, as Zach gaped for air, pushing at his mouthpiece in a tell-tale sign of exhaustion, his antago­nist pounced, breaking his jaw, gashing the tongue and catching Zach with an uppercut as he fell, adding a scything blow to the ear to help him on his way to the floor, where he landed with sickening finality, one leg twitching. Zach had a clot removed and his licence also. It was not safe for him to fight ever again.

The ring is not safe, it’s a dangerous place! So what happens, Rachel wonders, when Zach sees Shaw? When the ogre comes at him out of the forest? What does he see that so unhinges him? What are the dynam­ics of rage, Papa? Tell me.

—Rachel. Explain reflection.
—A reflection is a mathematical concept, not a formula, not a shape. It’s a transformation.
—Expound.
—We are not bilaterally symmetric. Not invariant in reflection.
—Good, Rachel.

Perhaps, thinks Rachel, when Wolff and Shaw exchange glances at Izzy’s gym in Clerkenwell, they see into a glass, sharing a kind of mirror symmetry, each reflecting loss. Loss and fate. Sandbag feels a roiling fury because of that epic fight he lost in his prime, perhaps his one shot at the title, a bout after which he is not ever the same, eternally outclassed. And Zach sees in Shaw the bruiser he beat in such style he lost his head and gambled his title too soon, propelled like Stephenson’s Rocket into the ring with Kubriashvili to contest a title fight he barely survives.

Muzhik!” Zach had called himself as she sat in his hospital room in those long days of recovery. “Had they not passed me fit!” he mused. “If I had ducked, if I had danced, if I had hit through the target. If I had been fully fit. If I had not been so

“Bloody-minded?” she teased. “Hot? Impetuous?”

“All of that,” he smiled. “All of that.”

“Rubbish!” Rachel countered. “I mean, walker! As you love to say. Stuff and nonsense! You are a fighter,” she added. “Were a fighter. Noth­ing you could do,” she insisted, offering consolation now that she is cer­tain he will not ever be allowed to fight again. One of Nicky’s favourite sayings came to mind, though she did not voice it, words of the old soldier, his special wisdom.

“What is the point of ducking?” says the old soldier to the young soldier. “Each shot has a man’s name on it anyway!” he laughs. “Nothing you can do.”
 
 Zach pats his pockets in the bedroom doorway: keys, cash, mobile, yes.

“Bashing off now, be right back,” he says, frowning with decision. “And the Shaw thing—I’ll tell you later, Rach. OK? Full particulars, no holds barred!”

“You’re running away!” she accuses.

“I’m not! I’m late, that’s all. I need you to call the rat man. Tell him I’ll be a few minutes late. OK? Left the number on the kitchen table.”

“Come here for a moment,” says Rachel, and Zach kneels by the bed. “Does it hurt?” she asks, brushing his brow. “You don’t answer me.”

“It’s all your fault,” Zach smiles. “The scrap with Shaw. You and your rats. That essay you read to me. The ratcatcher in New York City.”

“Joseph Mitchell? The Rats on the Waterfront.

“Yeah. The catcher and his peanut butter sarnie. What he discovered.”

“The efficacy of peanut butter in attracting rats. But I don’t—”

“I called Shaw a rat,” Zach confesses, hangdog.

“That’s all? You fought over that? Can it be so silly?”

“Stupid,” he concedes.

“Didn’t you tell me about a fighter who won a round without ever throwing a punch? In the forties?”

“Willie Pep! Willie Pep, Will o’ the Wisp. Great featherweight. Yeah.”

“He won on skill, yes? Not a single blow thrown. I like that story,” insists Rachel. “Very much.”

“Well, he’s also famous for one of the dirtiest fights in history. OK?” “I still like it,” she says, and slips her hands up his sleeves, clasping him gently by the forearms—brachioradialis—forearms her fingers can-not quite encompass. “Makes one think, doesn’t it? Winning a round without a blow. Without a blow, Wolff!”

“Marry me,” Zach murmurs, dropping chin to chest.

“We are married. We’ve always been married. Every day, we marry,” she says quietly. “Can’t you see?”
Publisher: Vintage Canada