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Review: The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block

the story of forgetting Review: The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block

Faces. Stories. Events. Places. Dates. Each person has a unique knowledge of a range of these discrete little pieces of knowledge. Arguably, its the very way that we knit these data together that makes us who we are. After all, without these facts, without memory, there would be little left. Worse still than the loss of these memories would be the loss of the ability to create new ones coupled with the loss of the basic human functions that we take for granted. Speech. Writing. Movement.

Its no wonder, then, that memory-related diseases and conditions stir a sense of twinned curiosity and trepidation within us. A combination of the exigencies of living longer lives and the increased diagnostic power of our medical professionals means that we seem to be surrounded by conditions that, while once vague and inchoate, are now sharply, cruelly defined. Of these, though, there seems to be one condition in particular that is at the forefront of the consciousness of the layperson: Alzheimers disease, that progressive degenerative disorder that to varying degrees we fear may lurk within us, or within our loved ones. Perhaps what makes it so disconcerting is that it seems to pick off its victims in an undiscerning sort of wayand, worse, that it doesnt only appear amongst the elderly. In fact, a variant of Alzheimers, known as Early Onset Alzheimers, has been isolated in particular family groups, and can result in startlingly quick mental degeneration, with sufferers succumbing within a period of between five and seven years. Its this particular form of Alzheimers with which Stefan Merrill Blocks debut novel'The Story of Forgetting intimately deals.

The Story of Forgetting invokes a complex narrative style that disconcertingly replicates the complexity of the subject matter and tenuous relationships it so tortuously describes. The novel is a braid of three, perhaps four different narratives, and these travel in a serpentine manner towards a painful, inexorable ending. Its not an unpredictable narrative by any means, as the eventual outcome of the novel is underscored within its opening pages, but the circumspect and surprisingly upbeat, matter-of-fact manner by which Block takes us there is the books strength.

Our two major narrative threads are those of Seth, a tragic teenaged social misfit who has come to the gradual realisation that his mothers eccentric behaviour and general absentmindedness are of more sinister origin than first suspected, and of Abel, an elderly man who, despite being physically crippled, retains an impressive mental acuityand an even more impressive determination to beat off the demands of a changing society.

Perhaps the most oft-uttered phrase in this book is have we met before? Its a heartbreaking phrase, and one that in other circumstances could be so innocuous. But when Seths mother begins asking him this with painful repetition, Seth sets out in an attempt to find others who have the condition in order to find out what is in store for his mother, but also, given the fifty percent likelihood of eventually suffering from the disease himself, what is in store for him. However, despite his efforts to trace his mothers past and build a coherent narrative, Seth has little to work with. All his mother has ever given him as a clue to her past is a series of fanciful stories of a place called Isidora, a land of the memory-less.

The mirror image to the have we met before? is the elderly Abel, an unwelcome oddity who is slowly being pushed out of his home by a determined invasion of McMansions and glossy family cars. Abel, though, has retained his tenacious grip on his land for reasons of his own, and none of which are simply due to intransigence or his crotchety nature. Abel, it turns out, fathered a child with his brothers wife many years ago, a secret he only revealed to his daughter after she watched her father waste away with early onset Alzheimers. Abel reassures her that he has shown no signs of the disease, and that she need not worry herself.

These two narratives are linked by a series of gentle stories of the land of Isidora. Unfortunately, while these stories should have provided the cement to the careful building of the plot, I found that they detracted from the overall narrative, and often fell into insipid mawkishness. Similarly, Block tells a narrative of the origins of the particular (fictitious) variety of Early Onset Alzheimers described in his book, and while this is in parts curious and amusing, here and there it does devolve into a lengthy indulgence (with one particular rumination on Chance and Memory being a particularly painful example of this).

While perhaps the most ambitious component of this book is its narrative structure rather than the narrative itself, the stories of Abel and Seth are well-told, and complement each other as they fumble towards an emotional (if somewhat trite) conclusion. Unfortunately, the descriptor ambitious also serves as a euphemism for tried, but doesnt quite work, and Im afraid that this is the case here. While The Memory of Forgetting is a novel story that brings to mind books such as A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (review) or even Oliver Sackss The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, it does suffer from a touch of narrative pomposity, and some strange flights of fancy that it would have been stronger without.

200px 3.5 stars.svg  Review: The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block

Click here to listen to an interview with Stefan Merrill Block on Australias ABC Radio National Book Show.

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