Your Mouth Is Lovely: A Novel

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"Each winter I'm sure will be my last. Dust to dust,I find myself saying as my frozen fingers struggle tohold the pen with which I write these words to you, Ashes toashes, I mutter, and nothing but suffering and joyin between. I've had my share. Hot and sharp ? I taste itstill in the blood that fills my mouth when I cough."

Miriam is a nineteen-year-old imprisoned in Siberia following the Russian Revolution of 1905. Reaching out to the young daughter whom she gave up at birth, ...

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2002 Hard cover First edition. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 368 p. Audience: General/trade. Book Description: It s been almost six years since you were born, six years less ... a day since you were taken from me. Taken from me, do you understand? I would never have let you go. I was still in Kiev, awaiting execution. I would hang as soon as you were born; that was my sentence: death, postponed until your birth. Miriam is a young Jewish woman, imprisoned in Siberia for subversive activities during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Reaching out to the young daughter she has seen only at birth, Miriam weaves a poignant and richly layered tale of her life, the only legacy she can leave her little girl. Your Mouth is Lovely is Nancy Richler s epic story of a family caught between the rich yet rigid traditions of the past and the unfamiliar and often frightening ways of a society trying desperately to reinvent itself. Miriam is a young outcast, rejected by her suicidal mother and abandoned by her father in their sma Read more Show Less

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"Each winter I'm sure will be my last. Dust to dust,I find myself saying as my frozen fingers struggle tohold the pen with which I write these words to you, Ashes toashes, I mutter, and nothing but suffering and joyin between. I've had my share. Hot and sharp — I taste itstill in the blood that fills my mouth when I cough."

Miriam is a nineteen-year-old imprisoned in Siberia following the Russian Revolution of 1905. Reaching out to the young daughter whom she gave up at birth, Miriam weaves a haunting tale of life in a small Jewish village during the last days of imperial Russia and of a community caught between the rich yet rigid traditions of the past and the frightening, unfamiliar ways of a society desperately trying to reinvent itself.

Rejected by her suicidal mother and abandoned by her father at birth, Miriam is marked as an outcast in her village from the beginning. Reunited with her father when he marries Tsila, a haughty and complex woman whose beauty has been marred by the hand of divine anger, Miriam searches to unveil the secrets of her birth in a place of mystery and superstition, where everyone seems to know the truth that eludes her.

Your Mouth Is Lovely moves seamlessly from picturesque but impoverished villages, where fife is ruled by the iron hand of God and the equally powerful grip of Fate, to the slums of teeming Kiev, where a seething anger is about to change the course of Russian history. A story of epic human drama, Your Mouth Is Lovely is a poetic, dreamy novel with a darkly magical sheen.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
This accomplished novel summons up the lost world of the Russian shtetls around the Pripet marshes in Ukraine, and shows how those communities were first changed and then annihilated by the events that led, ultimately, to the Russian Revolution. At the center of Richler's tale is Miriam Lev, whose mother drowned herself when she was a day old, and who at age six is taken in hand by her father's new wife, Tsila, a harsh, beautiful seamstress who teaches Miriam the alphabet and dreams of another life. After an ill-starred and painful series of events, Miriam ends up, at nineteen, in Siberia, having shot an officer of the Tsar at point-blank range. Miriam's hegira is told here as a letter to her own daughter, whom she hasn't seen since she gave birth to her, in prison. Richler's work recalls the stories of Isaac Babel, in which the knowable is charged with mystery.
Publishers Weekly
Like a doomed love affair, the Russian Revolution proceeds according to its own inexorable logic in this haunting U.S. debut by Canadian Richler (Throw Away Angels). Within hours of Miriam Lev's birth into a swampy shtetl in prerevolutionary Minsk, her mother dispatches her to a wet nurse and drowns herself. Six years later, Miriam is halfheartedly reclaimed by her father, Aaron, "the Stutterer," newly married to the young seamstress Tsila. With her grotesque facial birthmark and a disposition "sour as spoiled milk," Tsila fulfills the job requirements for wicked stepmother. But this remarkably complex character educates Miriam "to be a human being among human beings" and instills in her the urge to escape ("Nice is somewhere else"). She also binds Miriam to her own family, especially to her rebellious sister Bayla, now scandalously cohabitating with the agitator Leib in Kiev. Convinced that poverty, pogroms and mounting political unrest are making Russia uninhabitable, Tsila decides they'll emigrate to Argentina. But late in 1904, just months before the outbreak of revolution, she sends Miriam to Kiev to find Bayla a quest that leads to a Siberian political prison. Weaving together political and cultural history, magical realism and the resigned mordancy of Jewish humor, Richler has created a world that seems totally inhabited, but poised to self-destruct. Too many tangential incidents and indistinguishable minor characters crowd the novel, but in Tsila, Bayla and especially in Miriam, Richler has created unforgettable, deeply nuanced characters, freethinking dreamers whose revolutionary activities feel both historically inevitable and mysteriously personal. Agent, Dean Cooke. (Nov. 8) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
It's 1911-only six years before the fall of the Russian Empire. And Miriam is writing a journal that she hopes will eventually make its way to her young daughter, living with Miriam's Aunt Bayla in Canada. Unfortunately for Miriam, she is incarcerated in the bleakest Siberian prison camp under a life sentence for having engaged in revolutionary activities. Miriam tells her story in a succession of flashbacks interspersed with the brief journal entries. We are soon drawn in by the peculiar circumstances of Miriam's life-her mother's suicide at her birth; her adoption by a peasant family; readmittance several years later to her father's household with his new wife, Tsila (Bayla's older sister); and then Miriam's journey from the shtetl to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. In Kiev, she believes her life will have a new beginning: "No one knew me in Kiev, no one cared who I was, where I came from. It could be dangerous, I supposed, to be so alone, but I felt no danger, only joy." Instead, she unwittingly gets involved in the revolutionary movement, which is her undoing. Richler has created a vital, credible world that seamlessly demonstrates the interconnectedness of humanity. Such is the power of her craft that Miriam's story transcends the mundane, propelling this magnificent novel into the company of Dickens and Dostoyevski. Richler's first novel, Throw Away Angels, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award in her native Canada. Recommended without reservation for all fiction collections.-Edward Cone, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Canadian novelist Richler (Throw Away Angels, not reviewed) fashions a tale of lyric historical suspense out of a Jewish girl’s life--from her stunted beginnings in a late-19th-century Belarussian village to her political arrest during the 1905 Russian Revolution. From a harsh Siberian prison, in 1911, teenaged Miriam relates in flashback the sad story leading to her incarceration for life. Born in the dirt-poor shtetl on the swampy Pripet River, Miriam is doubly cursed: her mother walks into the sea after giving birth to her; and her forbidding stepmother, Tsila, leaves a death scar on her neck from slicing her trachea open when she suffers diphtheria as a child. ("Your mouth is lovely," Tsila tells the child, teaching her to speak.) Miriam grows up under the sour, morbid teachings of Tsila, who scorns the town’s gossips and dreams of a better life outside of Russia. Pogroms descend on defenseless Jewish villages, and insurrection is in the air: by degrees, Miriam is drawn into secret political meetings and running errands for agitators. Sent to Kiev to find her aunt Bayla, who has run off with her suspect fiancé, Leib, Miriam suffers her first imprisonment for dropping pamphlets over the balcony at the opera; soon, thanks to Bayla’s lax supervision, she becomes a member of the Socialist movement. Although well educated and deeply committed, Miriam is young and falls sway to more forceful personalities, like Leib, who seduces her irresponsibly; as a result, her final imprisonment feels arbitrary and unreal. Richler has done admirable research (she lists reams of sources in the back); her novel’s strength lies in the quietly assured detail of Miriam’s peasant family beginnings. Therevolutionaries, inevitably, spout rather uninteresting slogans, and the ending rushes to a neat conclusion. The rare woman revolutionary has her day in a story written with tremendous conviction and feeling.
Vancouver Sun
“Your Mouth Is Lovely is a true achievement - astonishing … thoroughly absorbing … these are characters to relish.”
Quill & Quire
“A rich portrait of the lives of Russian Jewish women … consistently fresh and dynamic … a delight to read”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060096779
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/5/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

NANCY RICHLER’s short fiction has been published in various American and Canadian literary journals, including Room of One’s Own, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, Another Chicago Magazine and The Journey Prize Anthology. Her first novel, Throwaway Angels, was published in 1996 and was shortlisted for the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel. Her second novel, Your Mouth Is Lovely, won the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for fiction and Italy’s 2004 Adei-Wizo Prize. It has been translated into seven languages. Born in Montreal, Nancy Richler lived for many years in Vancouver but has recently returned to Montreal.

Visit her website at

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Minsk Gubernia, 1887

In the seventh month of her pregnancy Henye dreamed of thirst. It was the month of Tammuz, but not like Tammuz. Nowhere was the high blue sky of previous summers, the afternoon breeze sweet with blossoming rye. The air was so thick with heat that the wheat in the field bent under the weight of it, and the sky hung yellow and low over the town, portending nothing good. Night after night, Henye lay on her bed dreaming of thirst. Such thirst as she had never experienced in her waking life. Unslakable thirst. Unearthly.

The pregnancy was her second. The first had ended in shocking misfortune. Shocking, because the signs -- until the birth itself -- had all seemed so favorable. Seven months into that pregnancy the kicking inside her had been so vigorous that she could place a crust of bread on her swollen belly just to have the pleasure of watching it fly across the room. It was a boy, she knew, and one endowed with such power and obvious strength of purpose that surely he could only be destined for greatness.

Her first mistake: second-guessing Divine intention.

Compounded by a second: she told the other women in the town. That was reckless. Foolhardy. The evil eye couldn't help but be tempted. Not to mention Lilith, who delighted in nothing so much as stealing other women's babies.

Still, the kicking persisted. And on the new moon of the month of Av, the first pangs of labor began. The midwife was called; pangs turned to pain. All seemed as it should: the crown appearing soon enough, followed by the torso, long and perfect, and finally the legs, kicking in movements by now so familiar to themother.

"A boy," the midwife pronounced, but when he opened his mouth to howl, he couldn't take a breath.

He tried again. And again. Mouth open like a fish, he gulped and gasped, but to no avail. Used to the rarefied air of the other world, he found ours too thick. Too cluttered, maybe, with mortal desires and disappointments. It collected like mud in his lungs. He began to strain and thrash, his small back arching, his skin turning blue. His legs still moved, but in more of a twitch than a kick, like die dance of a chicken whose head is already rolling in the dirt. The midwife slapped him, shook him, breathed whatever she could spare of her own breath into his gasping mouth, but his lungs weren't like ours. More like wings than lungs, they flapped inside his chest, transporting him back to the world in which he belonged.

They named him just before he died. A final attempt, perhaps, to ensnare his fleeing soul. Yaakov, they named him, for his grandfather who had loved life.

The third mistake. They should have named him Yaakov Simcha. That was our grandfather's full name. Yaakov, who fought with the angel, and Simcha, who is joyful. A balanced name, full of luck-that's what should have been my brother's Instead, they returned him to the earth eternally fighting with his angel.

And fight he did. From the moment he crossed back into the other world his strength returned, but it was coupled now with a cruelty he hadn't exhibited before. His kicking resumed. Timid at first, daring only to interrupt her dreams. Then bolder, brasher, it began distracting her at all times of the day and the night. Those same kicks that had so delighted her once with their promise became taunts now, torments, a rain of blows and mockery under which she soon began to falter.

She conceived again quickly enough -- she was young and healthy in body -- but her spirit was changed. She could barely eat, would no longer meet anyone's eye, and as her pregnancy progressed she took on stranger and ever more disturbing behavior. She could be in the middle of a task, a conversation-it didn't matter what-when all of a sudden she would stop still, face frozen, as if listening to something far away. The daily tasks that root us to this world became odious to her. The elements left to women's care-water and fire -- she neglected. Her stove remained unlit, her cisterns collected dust. The call from the other world was relentless.

All through those months of pregnancy with me, she drifted further and further from this life-and me, all the while, trying to draw my nourishment from her.

Nights were the worst. The thirst. Tormented by it in her dreams, Henye tossed and cried out in her sleep. Night after night she cried -- rasping cries, half-strangled gasps. My father, Aaron Lev, upon hearing such sounds, feared for her life, for her soul, for the soul of the unborn child-my soul. But no sooner than he had decided to consult the rabbi, relief came. Relief in the form of a stranger, a boy carrying a jug of water. The boy poured some water into his hand, water so cool and refreshing that as Henye drank from his cupped hand, she moaned in pleasure. My father, hearing such a moan, mistook it for another kind of pleasure and woke her immediately. He was a pious man, you understand. He woke her so that she wouldn't have to carry the burden of sin along with the weight of the child growing inside of her.

But was Henye grateful toward her husband for saving her from sin? How could she be? Her thirst had reduced her to a single longing, a perfect arch that strained toward its one point of desire. She was angry to have come so close only to be snatched away, enraged to be pulled back from the union she had been about to enter.

The boy returned. His Jug of water now empty, he took her by the hand and led her to the source: a pool smooth as glass and deep with water so pure and clear that she could see the speckled stones that formed its floor twenty feet below its surface...

Your Mouth Is Lovely. Copyright © by Nancy Richler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

IntroductionSet in Russia during the turbulent years preceding the revolution of 1905, Your Mouth is Lovely is the story of a young Jewish woman caught in the crosscurrents of a dramatically changing world.In a Siberian prison, 23-year-old Miriam is living out her days in exile. Aware that her own end is near, she writes a letter to her daughter, whom she was forced to give up at birth and will never see again. Intent on giving her daughter an understanding of who she was, and how she ended up alone, in prison and near death, Miriam spins a rich story of her brief and conflicted life, set against the backdrop of a bygone world on the brink of unprecedented change.Miriam tells of the daunting circumstances of her birth and the secrets that drove her young mother to suicide on the day Miriam was born. She recalls her childhood in a shtetl in the last days of imperial Russia under the tutelage of her stepmother, Tsila, whose renown as a dressmaker is matched only by gossip about her enigmatic nature. As Miriam edges into adolescence, she details her desire to break free of the confines of her village without fully realizing the currents of revolution that are beginning to sweep through the country. And finally, she reveals how a series of small but significant political changes on the streets of Kiev ultimately led her to a Siberian prison. Your Mouth is Lovely is a captivating and poignant story about an individual caught in the circumstances of her era, and how small choices, twists of fate, and betrayals can determine the course of a particular life--even at the great, transitional moments in history. Questions forDiscussion
  1. How would you characterize Miriam's relationships with other residents of the shtetl. How did these relationships impact the decisions Miriam made as she became older? How is Miriam's relationship with Tsila different from other daughter/stepmother relationships in literature?
  2. Miriam's life is defined in part by the circumstances of her birth, and she is often referred to by those in the shtetl as "unlucky" or "cursed." Do you think this is true? Does Miriam believe this is true?
  3. From her first meeting with Wolf in the swamp at the edge of the village, Miriam keeps crossing paths with him. What does each one get from their friendship?
  4. Superstition plays an important part in the story, from Freyde changing Miriam's name to the curse of the brocade fabric, to the reeds Tsila chews to induce fertility. Do you think the women in particular are inclined to believe in the power of superstition and ritual?
  5. Tsila tells Aaron Lev that "there is nothing for them" in their village anymore and that they "still have time to make a life" in Argentina. Why does Tsila make the decision to move to Argentina? Is she running away from something or toward something?
  6. When Benny proposes marriage to Miriam, she not only rejects his offer but is offended by it. What is it that he says that makes her so upset? How does this alter her view of life in the shtetl and her place there? How did Miriam's brief experience as a maid at the Entelman home shape the rest of her life?
  7. In telling Bayla that she is pregnant with Leib's child, Miriam reveals an unpleasant truth that she knows will hurt Bayla. Was it her way of getting even? What motivated Miriam at that particular crossing?
  8. Discuss the scene in which Miriam kills the gendarme. She says, "It was my own death that I wanted to mow down as it crashed through the door to claim me." What does she mean by this statement?
  9. When Miriam is on trial for the murder of the gendarme, she is also accused of building bombs. Why do you think Miriam chooses to spare Bayla even though revealing the truth could possibly have reduced her sentence? How does the relationship between Miriam and Bayla change from their days in the shtetl to their life in Kiev to their long-distance correspondence after Miriam's imprisonment?
  10. The political climate during the time period in which the book is set is one of the most turbulent in Russia's history. To what extent do you think Miriam was in charge of her own destiny given these circumstances? In one instance Sara says to Miriam, "It isn't a person's origins or pedigree that determine her worth…. It's the actions one takes or fails to take in one's life." How does this relate to Miriam's circumstances? How about the other characters, including Tsila and Bayla?
  11. "As I've put my pen to paper, day by day, week by week, I see only the gaps in what I've written, the distortions, the falseness of trying to impose one version of truth on a life." What is Miriam hoping to accomplish by writing a letter to her daughter? What does she mean by the "distortions" in what she has written, "the falseness of trying to impose one version of truth on a life"?
  12. One day Miriam makes the decision to destroy the letter she has written to her daughter. "I wasn't destroying it, of course, but releasing it. And already, as the first letters flew into the air, I felt a corresponding lightening of my own spirit." What is her motivation for wanting to destroy the letter? Why does she change her mind after Lydia intervenes?
About the Author: Nancy Richler's first novel, Throwaway Angels was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award. Her short stories have been published in literary journals in Canada and the United States. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2002

    A must read!

    Your Mouth is Lovely is by far the best book of the year! I couldn't out it down. I highly recommend this book. I can still close my eyes and picture the images of the shtetl that Richler creates for her reader.

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