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10 April 2008

Secrets and Consequences

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Kim Edwards
448 pages
Penguin

Kim Edwards sets out to tell a story of how one man’s impulsive decision sends a ripple effect that affect many lives including his own, how an unwitting lie said in one fateful moment has repercussions that reverberate through a quarter of a century of loss, grief and deceit. It is unfortunate then, that the narrative is bogged down with verbal flourishes, that the characters are not etched strongly enough for the reader to feel any empathy, and that descriptive narratives, while good enough for a creative writing course, tend to get on your nerves with constant repetition.

Shortly then, the story is set in motion when a blizzard forces Dr David Henry, an orthopaedic surgeon, to deliver his own babies. The first baby, a boy, is born healthy. When the second baby, a girl, makes her appearance, he recognises all the physical symptoms of Down Syndrome. Convinced that his wife cannot ‘handle the trauma’ of a disabled child, he makes an impulsive decision to send her away to an institution. (This is not as unbelievable as it sounds, considering that the story is set in the sixties, when mentally deficient children were either institutionalised, or hidden away as shameful secrets.) The nurse, on her way to do the doctor’s bidding, has second thoughts, and flees the town to bring the girl up as her own. In a misguided moment, Dr Henry tells his wife that their second baby died at birth.

The secrets begin, taking its toll on man, and wife, and their boy, who feels the loss of his sister, without ever having known her. The narrative now diverges into parallel tracks that never meet until the denouement. One tracks the disintegration of the Henrys, whose hitherto happy life is poisoned by an atmosphere of deceit. Burdened by a secret only he knows, Dr Henry changes, a change not seen, but felt by Norah, his wife. The other track follows the nurse, Caroline, who, as a single mother, struggles to raise a child with disabilities.

Kim Edwards has a good grasp of her language. Now, if only she learned when and how to use it. The book is peppered with flowery descriptions, and she does seem to have a hand and finger fetish. They are described everywhere – there are short fingers, slender fingers, and long, blunt ones, hands are ‘starflowers’ or ‘starfish’ – Edwards paints beautiful word pictures, only she paints too many of them. After the tenth descriptive paragraph, filled with ‘motes of light’ or jam jars that looks like ‘jewels’, sunshine ‘gleaming’, ‘glowing’ ‘floating’, your eyes begin to glaze over. Unless you are sedated or masochistic, you can skip whole pages.

Considering that the story moves across three decades, it is amazing how little the characters develop. They are stuck in their own cardboard world, one dimensional figures, whose reasons for doing what they do are difficult to fathom. Many hundreds of pages of descriptions later, you still have no understanding of the characters’ angst. For instance, why does Paul hate his father so? How does Norah suddenly transform herself from a wife who, at the beginning of the story, buys her husband’s lie that their baby is dead – “ …because it was 1964, and he was her husband and she had always deferred to him completely” - to this self-assured business woman? Why does Caroline give up her career to look after a disabled child? Why, when she is the titular character, is Phoebe the least developed of all characters?

Phoebe is a rosy stereotype, her only interests being a cat and a husband. There is no mention of temper tantrums or anger or any real attempt at describing a child with Down Syndrome, apart from frequent physical descriptions. Neither is any effort expended on the irritation that normal parents feel at their inability to cope. Caroline’s struggles would have formed an interesting foil to Dr Henry’s guilt, but you have to wade through some really syrupy prose to finally get to her uphill battle as a single mother who is trying to integrate a special needs child into normal society. By then, Edwards loses track of what she really wants to concentrate on, and glosses over the struggles to fix on the result. Phoebe is a baby, then suddenly, she is six, and hey what do you know, she is 18, and she is working.

Many different strands of the story begin only to be given up without any conclusion. Rosemary comes in for no rhyme or reason that one can see, and disappears as quietly. So does Bree, Norah’s sister, and Doro, Caroline’s employer and friend. Characters and motives are described in excruciating detail, but essentials are overlooked. We are repeatedly told that Dr Henry’s secret has driven a wedge in the family. How? Does he act guilty all the time? Does Norah’s loss not allow her to love Paul? Why, when she is shown to be so caring, does Caroline never think of Norah’s pain? Why does Dr Henry confess to Rosemary?

The plot is riddled with more holes than a colander. Why didn’t the Henrys know that Norah was carrying twins? If the baby is supposed to have died, where is the body? How does Dr Henry manage to get a grave in a churchyard? How does Al, the truck driver with a golden heart, trace Caroline so easily in a large city? How does Norah, who is an alcoholic adulteress by the middle of the book, clean up and live happily ever after? Why does Bree suddenly get religion? How does Caroline manage to prove Phoebe is her daughter, when the birth certificate must show Dr and Norah Henry as her parents?

It is difficult to read a book when you cannot empathise with its bland unsubstantial characters. It is worse when an interesting concept is bludgeoned to death by stilted conversations, melodramatic clichés, and obvious symbolism. This is a book that starts out full of promise and fails miserably at living up to its potential.

© Anuradha Warrier and www.domain-b.com/goodlife - 2008

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