In my first summer as a bookseller, I met a local man who was, at that time, investing in older collectible books. I specify “older” because he was by no means interested in Modern Firsts. In fact, regardless of the age of a book, no matter how old and rare it might be, he was not interested in any book he suspected might contain a “made-up story.” No novels, no short stories. One time he brought a book for me to inspect, something he’d bought at an auction. Written in French, published in France, from sometime in the 1800s, if I remember correctly, it was a book he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep. No, he said, in answer to my question, he didn’t read French, but could I please read enough of it to tell him what it was about? If it was a history book, he’d keep it—and it turned out that it was, and he did. Made-up story? He’d have wanted to resell the undesirable item.
Every bookseller, every writer of fiction, and every lover of Jane Austen knows well that author’s opinion on the subject of fiction and its authors, clearly given in her own novel, Northanger Abbey:
Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. And what are you reading Miss --? Oh, it is only a novel! Replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame. It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
Naturally, I could not love Austen without being in accord with her sentiments on the subject of fiction, and I’ve certainly been reading my share this winter.
Marion, the adult protagonist and narrator of The Memory of Love, by Linda Olsson, lives in a small, cluttered frame house on the New Zealand seacoast and revisits her childhood in Sweden via a series of painful, reluctant flashbacks. Would she have continued to repress the early memories if not for her encounter with a nearly mute and obviously unhappy young boy one day on the beach? Perhaps. But as she and Ika share weekly soup lunches and work together on a gigantic outdoor art assemblage of found objects, Marion realizes that she is growing to depend on the boy’s quiet presence. As a doctor, she wants to help him—or, she wonders apprehensively, does she want him to save her? After all, she is alone here, very alone.
They called me ‘the artist’. And they called me ‘the doctor’. Or just ‘her’ or ‘that foreign woman’. Making it clear that somehow I was not one of them. To them I had no name, just a designation.
Marion’s present isolation and past devils combine with Ika’s troubled, fragmented family and suspected autism (plus the necessary red tape of government services) to keep the final outcome in doubt throughout the novel, and there are other ribbons of mystery to be untangled, too, but this is neither suspense nor social problems fiction. I am almost tempted to call this a “coming of age” story. It isn’t that, in any traditional sense, but the idea makes sense to me. Given that the protagonist is in her early 50s, still, in refusing to recall or share with anyone her painful childhood, Marion has effectively, all these years, doomed Marianne (her original given name) to a stunted and impoverished emotional existence. She has not allowed her(self) a full adult life. Moreover, the two identities, the fearful, self-protective child and the cautious, self-protective adult, are far from integrated. In order to help Ika, then, Marion must reunite with Marianne and bring her to adulthood.
There is also George, a widower who lives not far from Marion, and George has his own grief to overcome. In fact, Marion, Ika, and George are all living isolated lives, each one bearing alone what feels like unbearable grief.
The Memory of Love builds quietly. In the early pages, having expected more “landscape,” I found the interiority of its world somewhat disappointing (though moving between northern Europe and the Antipodes, it is definitely not a travel narrative), but that feeling faded as the story drew me in. Marion and Ika seem almost like wild animals--tentative, guarded, shy—and here they are on this nearly desolate beach, at the mercy of tides and storms, needing shelter. The physical setting works as a metaphor for the emotional aspect, and the parallels between Ika’s and Marianne/Marion’s lives make it impossible for the reader not to identify with the narrator’s challenges.
Episodes from Marianne’s past are at times confusing. The confusions, however, arise from Marianne/Marion’s repression and lack of understanding and integration, not from any incompetence on the part of the author. Quite the contrary! I would say that, as important as is plot to this novel, the clearing away of memory's confusion so that the protagonist can find clarity for the remainder of her life is equally important. What happened in her childhood? Why? Who was responsible? And can she be responsible for another troubled, damaged child?
The closer I got to the end of The Memory of Love, the more involved I found myself in the characters’ lives and the higher my anxiety for them. But you know I’m not going to give the ending away! Anyway, its meaning can be grasped only after a reader takes the novel’s full journey.
[Note on author: Linda Olsson was born in Stockholm in 1948 and graduated from the University of Stockholm with a degree in law. Since 1986 she has lived in Kenya, Singapore, the U.K., Japan, and New Zealand, now dividing her time between Auckland and Stockholm. Her first novel, Astrid & Veronika, was an international success, and was followed by Sonata for Miriam. The Memory of Love debuts February 26 from Penguin Books.]