Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

"The Story of Forgetting", Stefan Merrill Block (Faber, 2008)

How can the tired old subject of having a Alzheimer parent be made interesting? Answer: Make the story into a quest! Better still, have 2 stories. In this novel Abel's story is interlaced with Seth's and with tales from Isidora.

  • Abel Haggard is the 68 year old hunchbacked twin of Paul, offspring of Sarah. Abel (or Paul?) and Mae had a daughter, Jamie.
  • Seth, 15, is the son of said Jamie. His chapters are headed "Hypothesis", "Procedure", etc. He researches into the illness, interviews other sufferers, realises that maybe he just wants to find someone to share his emotions with, or simply that he wants to find his roots. The family tree contains people with the EOA-23 variant of familial early-onset Alzheimer's; they tend to be beautiful people who flee their past, the variant traceable back to a single point of origin: Lord of Mapplethorpe of Iddylwahl (Idyll choice?), late 18th century England.
  • Isidora is a mythical golden land whose tales have been passed down through generations, a place where at first no-one remembers and no-one speaks. They contact their dead by walking over their graves - When a gust fills the meadow, flowers exhale their pollen, dead leaves go airborne, dandelions lose their heads, and for a moment the true history of Isidora is written in the wind (p.75). Then a girl arrives, says "I'm just sad, okay?", and language breaks out, then war.

Neither Seth nor Abel are very sociable. They're detached observers. We expect them to meet eventually, but how? You'll have to read the book.

Some odd, seemingly unintentional themes arise in the imagery - a dog theme

  • a clump of [hair] occasionally would stand upright for a split second, then fall back down, like a dog trying to keep his balance in the backseat of a moving car, p.149
  • Jenny cooed in the lilt some adults save for addressing those at either end of life, and also for dogs, p.257
  • The words weren't even words, they were simply the sounds that I barked. Like a dog, p.266

and male organs

  • Marla Neuberger, whose head, incidentally, bore a shocking resemblance to a circumcised male organ, p.115
  • a squint of my eyes, a cock of my head, p.117

At first I was wary of the subject matter: there are easy pickings to be made from demented conversation ("At any rate, what may I help you with? Or have you already said?", p.193), and the sadness of people slipping away. I was won over in the end by the craft and the lack of sentimentalism. Seth's adolescence problems are foregrounded as much as his mother's senility is. He's not paranoiac about any pre-cursor symptoms he might have. Yes, there's a contrived feel to the plot interconnections but this is literature when all's said and done, not life.

There are several mentions of the portals between Isidori and Earth. On p.271, three Isidoran boys shove the girl, now an old woman, down a hole that connects Isidora to Earth. Later on p.308 we read that "Maybe the point of transference doesn't have to be a place at all. Maybe it can be as simple as a single fact without context" then later on the same page another connection emerges - "The mind, above all, wants to make sense. Almost everything it perceives it forgets." which gives the book symmetrical elegance. Formulating a theory from raw data requires selective forgetfulness. Seth's exploration of forgetfulness leads (by way of hypothesis/fantasy) to his later work using the Scientific Method as a graduate student.

The book ends with 3 pages of notes: references to scientific papers, websites, etc, so you can find out how much is true - I fell for the EOA-23 factoids

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