Recently I moderated a panel discussion on CanLit and the SF/F genre and it got me to thinking. Specifically, it got me thinking about memory. And that’s because if there’s one thing modern Canadian literature is full of, it’s memory. Years ago (a decade, mebbbe?) an industry journal published a chart detailing the subjects of that season’s big-bet books. It was a tongue-in-cheek piece, but it turned out that some ridiculously high percentage of the ‘must read’ novels were all about memory. Ha, it’s funny ’cause it’s true! Next to identity, memory is one of the themes that helps define a distinct Canadian Literature.
Here’s the thing, though: that’s not just true for CanLit. All stories are about memory.
We may not completely understand how memory works, but we do know that repetition is key. We also know that simply the act of writing things down helps affix them in memory. We write books because we want them remembered. And we read them because we want to partake in the memories of others and create some of our own.
Who are we when we don’t know who we are?
Amnesia, that old stalwart, is less popular as a plot device in recent years than it used to be. I think that’s probably a good thing in general; the more I learn about concussions, strokes and other things that cause brain damage, the less injury-induced memory loss appeals to me. Nothing romantic about having to re-learn your own address, or the names of your kids.
That said, amnesia is a can still be effective. It directly confronts the idea of memory-as-identity. How much of who were are is tied up in who we think we are? What stays with us, and what do we let go of? Someone To Watch Over Me, by Lisa Kleypas, looks at those questions. Courtesan Vivian Duvall is found half-dead in the Thames. Grant Morgan, a Bow Street Runner, understands that a woman who knew so many powerful men undoubtedly knows some powerful secrets. Secrets enough to die for.
When Grant takes her into his home to recover, it becomes clear that Vivian can’t even remember her name, let alone any secrets she might hold. Which is unfortunate for the case, but good for the two of them. Because Vivian doesn’t remember the toxicity of their previous interactions, which helps Grant move beyond them. It’s not quite that simple of course: because Vivian doesn’t know who she is, she doesn’t know who she really is, and who else might be interested in finding out. But Grant isn’t Bow Street’s star for nothing. And working together, they find more than either could have imagined.
This is the first of Kleypas’s ‘Bow Street’ series, and my favourite. It offers a bit of a welcome respite from the “women who use sexual wiles are bad and must be punished” motif, though not quite in the way you might expect.
Who did we use to be?
I’m not a believer in reincarnation, partly because it doesn’t strike me as particularly interesting. Let’s face it: when it comes to the history of our species, the bulk of human lives can be summed up with the phrase “died young and badly”. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about the idea. Especially when it’s as beautifully written as Mariana, by Susanna Kearsley.
Mariana was Kearsley’s smash debut novel. It won the prestigious and lucrative Catherine Cookson prize, and made the author a well-known name on both sides of the Atlantic. It certainly made me a life-long fan. Mariana is the story of Julia Beckett, who recognized Greywethers, an old Wiltshire farmhouse, the first time she saw it as a child. As an adult, she buys it. As soon as she begins living there, Julia begins to dream about of Marianna Farr, a woman who left 17th century London for the countryside. The dreams become waking visions, and the past threatens to overwhelm the present. Especially since Mariana fell in love with nobleman Richard de Mornay, the dashing ancestor of the local squire.
There are always ties between the past and present, of course, between who we were and who were are now. Kearsley treads that line more gracefully than most, tying people and events together in ways both original and surprising. A wonderful story, gorgeously told.
How do we want to be remembered?
Another cool thing about memory: it’s something that we can choose to make for ourselves. We repeat names, phone numbers, random facts, trying to fix them in our minds (or maybe that’s just me). We enjoy reminiscing about past good times, and make them clearer in the doing. And what we do as individuals is what we do as a society: the bulk of what we consider our history is composed only of the bits we deliberately put in.
A time capsule encompasses that process in miniature. The choice of what goes in, what stays out; of what turns out to be important, and how ‘important’ changes over time: that’s what a time capsule is all about. How do we want to represent ourselves to the future?
A small-town time capsule is the impetus for the entire plot of Linda Howard’s novel Killing Time. As a boy, Knox Davis watched the ceremony as his town buried a time capsule to be opened a hundred years in the future. Instead, a mere twenty years later, the time capsule – and the earth that surrounds it – suddenly disappears. Knox, now a police investigator, tries to figure out what happened to it, and how. He knows two things for certain: that there was one more item in the capsule than officially listed; and that Nikita Stover, who arrives to investigate a murder that follows the theft, is not who she seems to be. He’s right on both counts
As the danger rises, Knox and Nikita have to work together. Which is tougher than it seems, because Nikita… well, she has some special issues. Discussing them in detail would spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it and wants to. But I can say this: while they try to figure things out, they fall in love. And it’s not easy: both Knox and Nikita have some pretty raw places in their pasts. Things they remember. Things that keep them from moving forward. But in one another, they find both the reason and the means to do that. Fast paced, fun, and more thinky than it appears at first glance.
Chris Szego can’t remember where she put her gloves.