In­sights come with a punch

The Mem­ory Trap

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Eleanor Lim­precht

By An­drea Gold­smith Fourth Es­tate, 352pp, $29.99

IHAVE rarely ap­pre­ci­ated memo­ri­als. I grew up just out­side Wash­ing­ton, DC, a city crowded with them, each one shinier and more ex­pen­sive than the last. Af­ter dark my friends and I would sit on the steps of the Jef­fer­son Me­mo­rial, shar­ing pil­fered cig­a­rettes, obliv­i­ous to how Thomas Jef­fer­son was rep­re­sented by all the in­can­des­cent mar­ble sur­round­ing us.

But the small memo­ri­als I have stum­bled across un­ex­pect­edly have been much more ar­rest­ing. A park bench with a plaque ded­i­cated to a hus­band and fa­ther makes me won­der what type of per­son he was, whether he sat on this bench, whether his be­reaved fam­ily does now, think­ing of him, star­ing out at the view.

I never con­sid­ered this pref­er­ence un­til halfway through Melbourne author An­drea Gold­smith’s sev­enth novel, when a char­ac­ter, Nina, is re­flect­ing on how ‘‘ mon­u­ments can mute and crush those who stand in their shad­ows; huge mon­u­ments can ac­tu­ally make in­di­vid­u­als dis­ap­pear’’.

Twenty or so pages later, Nina de­cides per­haps mem­ory is less a cog­ni­tive process than a sub­set of the imag­i­na­tion (some­thing Aris­to­tle also has said). She is think­ing of mon­u­ments and memo­ri­als and what gives them power be­cause she works as a con­sul­tant to peo­ple who want to cre­ate memo­ri­als.

Mon­u­ments and memo­ri­als are built in ser­vice to a par­tic­u­lar idea of a per­son or thing, a cer­tain ar­bi­trary imag­in­ing of them. And so, Gold­smith seems to say, are some of our re­la­tion­ships. What hap­pens when the mem­ory proves false?

As a child in Melbourne, Nina and her sis­ter Zoe lived next door to two broth­ers, Ram­say and Sean, who were their clos­est friends. Ram­say was a gifted pi­anist. The other chil­dren played in­stru­ments as well, but his tal­ent was so ex­tra­or­di­nary that lit­tle else was no­ticed.

Sean be­came es­tranged from the fam­ily as a re­sult of Ram­say’s pi­ano play­ing and a step­fa­ther who de­voted all his time to nur­tur­ing the child prodigy.

Zoe was and still is be­sot­ted with Ram­say and his mu­si­cal ge­nius, be­cause ‘‘ Ram­say at the pi­ano was sub­lime. No one could help but love him.’’ Ram­say away from the pi­ano is an­other story, and de­spite Zoe’s de­vo­tion he has no pas­sion for any­thing with­out ivory keys. So Zoe mar­ried an Amer­i­can, El­liot, but re­turned to Melbourne to stay close to Ram­say, un­able to give up her ide­alised mem­ory of him.

Zoe’s sis­ter Nina does her me­mo­rial work from Lon­don, where her hus­band, Daniel, works as a fu­tur­ol­o­gist. When Daniel leaves her for a col­league, Nina goes back to Melbourne on a work pro­ject. Here she wit­nesses the dis­so­lu­tion of her sis­ter’s mar­riage and is con­fronted by shared child­hood events that have stunted all their lives.

Watch­ing Zoe and El­liot in the car to­gether she sees ‘‘ two peo­ple mar­ried for more than twenty years, no warmth be­tween them, hardly any vis­i­ble con­nec­tion at all, yet bound to­gether by bonds so strong that not even mis­ery could set them free’’.

The Mem­ory Trap is packed with glit­ter­ing ref­er­ences. Gold­smith’s knowl­edge is vast: mu­sic, po­etry, phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture, and there are so many ideas within this book that be­come in­te­gral parts of the story with­out over­pow­er­ing it. Whether it is the bi­og­ra­phy of El­iz­a­beth Hard­wick that El­liot is writ­ing, the po­etry of Nikki Gio­vanni that Zoe re­mem­bers or the piece by Olivier Mes­si­aen, Vingt Re­gards sur l’En­fant-Je­sus, which Ram­say is play­ing when his brother Sean vis­its, noth­ing is su­per­flu­ous. All th­ese pieces have sig­nif­i­cance to the char­ac­ters and story.

To im­ply that this novel is con­cerned com­pletely with mem­ory and memo­ri­al­is­ing the past would be mis­lead­ing, though. Gold­smith has cre­ated char­ac­ters with very mod­ern and real dilem­mas — love­less mar­riages, a lack of em­pa­thy, over­whelm­ing grief af­ter a part­ner’s death — and forces them to nav­i­gate the com­plex­ity of to­day’s world. There is a bril­liant scene where Daniel and Nina re­con­nect over Skype, and Gold­smith cap­tures the si­mul­ta­ne­ous in­ti­macy and dis­tance of it.

The nar­ra­tion skips from one char­ac­ter to an­other through­out, so we go from de­spis­ing El­liot to real­is­ing the source of his anger and fragility. There are times, how­ever, when Gold­smith draws back from the story, speak­ing di­rectly to the sec­ond per­son — the ‘‘ you’’ who is the reader. It is a de­vice that can cre­ate greater in­ti­macy but once or twice it jarred, pulling me out of the story rather than mak­ing it more re­lat­able.

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