The Memory of Things is one of the books I received for Christmas. I’d never heard of it before, but its description was intriguing and I was looking for a quick read to get my reading momentum going for the new year, so I started it. (I signed up for the 50 Book Pledge and I’m doing a GoodReads challenge, so I’ve got to keep the ball rolling). I ended up pleasantly surprised.
Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things begins with sixteen-year-old Kyle fleeing across the Brooklyn Bridge on the morning of 9/11. Amidst the chaos, he spots an ash-covered girl wearing costume wings and makes a split-second decision to bring her home with him. His father is a New York City detective heading for ground zero and his mother and sister are stranded out-of-town, so Kyle is left alone with only his uncle, whose communication and mobility are severely limited by a recent motorcycle accident, and this strange girl who doesn’t remember anything. As they take shelter from the chaos in Kyle’s family’s apartment, Kyle and the girl rely on each other for comfort and stability, growing closer even as the future seems ever more uncertain.
Let’s get into it…
After Towers Falling, I wasn’t all that eager to jump back into a 9/11 story. I know it’s important to read them, especially now that we have a bit more perspective on it, but I didn’t really want a sad book or a book that was overly optimistic or nationalistic. Luckily, this book wasn’t too depressing nor did it put too cheerful a spin on things. It didn’t focus too much on the American dream or American resilience. Instead, it told a personal tale about the lives of two teenagers, capturing their immediate emotions and the bizarre post-tragedy, pre-recovery state many people found themselves in the days following the attacks.
I’m a fan of split-perspective narration. In this case, you get Kyle, who bears the burden of most of the exposition given that the girl suffers memory loss. His narration is pretty straight forward, but also reflects his anxieties not only about the attack and family’s health and safety, but also about his own struggles to fit in with the cop men in his family. This last one is particularly interesting to me, because it poses a challenge to gender norms and expresses the value of artistic endeavors (Kyle want to pursue music). I welcomed an illustration of the idea that such concerns are not erased by larger, more-immediate tragedy, but rather highlighted and enhanced.
The other half of the split-perspective is the girl. Her narration takes the form of shorter, more fragmented sections that are more poems than straightforward prose. This form is fitting as it reflects her fragmented memory. When her narration breaks or stops, it adds mystery and suspense to the novel. It suggests there are not only things she doesn’t remember, but things she doesn’t want to remember.
The relationship between Kyle and the girl shines hope on the situation. They find comfort in each other and form a close relationship with one another. This love story, if you want to call it that, is at time quite touching. However, the girl’s complete dependence on Kyle due to her apparent memory loss is a little off-putting to me. Kyle doesn’t take advantage, but he also doesn’t call social services. But maybe that can be excused because he’s a kid and doesn’t want to be alone. I don’t know, I guess I’m more like Kyle’s father than Kyle on that point. Even so, their relationship illustrates how much people need one another. Their relationship isn’t so much about passion and young love as it is about comfort and support.
Aside from the Kyle and the girl, one of the relationships that stood out was Kyle and Marcus’ friendship. Though they are in separate parts of the city, the boys make an effort to check in with on another. They show genuine concern for one another (as well as their other classmates). Kyle finds some support in Marcus and resolves to make more effort to be more aware of his friend’s past. These shorter passages were perhaps as heartwarming to me as Kyle’s interactions with the girl and his family members.
Ultimately, this story is one of hope. It takes place in a period of immense change, and leaves the reader hopeful that the world will get better. It also invites readers to question what they can do to make it better. For example, Kyle resolves to be more helpful at home especially with caring for his uncle. It is a nice, touching narrative that doesn’t fear addressing tragedy and sadness.
Final verdict: The Memory of Things explores the struggles and benefits of relationships in times of tragedy and change. A quick read, it ultimately provides an image of hope amid chaos.