Feed My Dear Dogs Emma Richler Fourth Estate pounds 17.99/ pounds 16.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
THIS IS a glorious hymn of praise to family, determinedly and sometimes troublingly setting out to prove Tolstoy wrong. The Weiss family is as unlike any other as you could name, yet it is undeniably happy. When sibling fights break out, they are healed by love and good humour; when the father requests a favour of his children, they actually enjoy obeying him.

Above all, this novel is a loving eulogy of the least visible character, the mother. Everyone else, even the newborn child, has a bigger, stronger, more demanding personality. Yet her mother's death has clearly left Jem, the narrator, spiritually homeless and telling it all to a therapist.

In an endlessly digressive story, nothing stalls Jem's questing, connective mind. She is obsessed with numbers, Second World War commandos, Holmes and Watson, the 613 Jewish dietary laws, the Morte d'Arthur, dying constellations and Ernest Shackleton trying to walk across Antarctica. It is his words, "Bless Our Dear Dogs", which inspire the title, but Jem has transformed them. Shackleton's men ultimately ate their dogs; Jem's mother would think only of keeping them alive.

It almost seems as though Jem has drawn up her obsessions in battle formation to protect her siblings against the accidents of fate. She doesn't really want them to leave home. She can accept that Dad is the loose cannon, teaching her boxing or dialogue from My Darling Clementine while otherwise ignoring them. But she is on a quest to understand, protect and serve her brothers and sister.

So what about Frances, the mother? She's beautiful and generous, but, in a long book, she barely features. Even the cleaner or nuns at Jem's convent (aka Mean Nun, Slave Nun, Directing Nun) come across more forcefully. Yet it's Frances who clearly counts for Jem.

This is a book about growing up, and Richler uses a charming and cunning conflation of mature and immature vocabulary to capture childhood confusions. Looking up Fra Filippo Lippi in the encyclopaedia, she is baffled why "1406?" is given as the year of his birth. She can only presume "Mr and Mrs Lippi were so happy when Filippo came along, they just forgot, and friends ask, how old is he now? And the Lippis scratch their heads and look at each other in a merry distracted fashion and say, We don't know! About 1406?". Time and again, Jem's world view made me laugh out loud.

For all Jem's anxieties, this is a joyful book about a joyful family that sees the goodness in nearly everyone. But - the real sting in the tale - maybe you can love your family too much. At the start, Jem's brother warns her: "The Weiss family is not the world ... you can't stay in your family for ever." Maybe if she had listened, she wouldn't now be in therapy.

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