Insights come with a punch
The Memory Trap
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.