Stefan Merrill Block – The Story of Forgetting
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Started: 18 December 2007
Finished: 21 December 2007
Summary: Abel Haggard, a 68-year-old hunchback, lives among the memories of his vanished family in a decrepit farmhouse that’s being swallowed by suburban sprawl. Seth Waller, an intelligent but socially awkward teenager, must watch as his mother is slowly overcome by familial early-onset Alzheimer’s. He begins to research the disease and his own family’s history in an attempt to understand what is happening to his mother, and what may one day happen to him. Seth and Abel’s stories are interwoven with tales of a land called Isidora, a world superimposed on our own where the burdens of memory – and thus of life, and death – are transcended.
Review: This book was much, much better than I was expecting, and extraordinary for it being a first novel from a young author. The prose was lyrical and lovely, and equally adept at speaking from the voice of an old man, a teenager, in the cadence of fairy tales, and in communicating scientific concepts and genetic histories in way that rendered them not only understandable and sympathetic, but also beautiful. The themes of memory and family and history and loss are built together in a plot that is relatively simple, but whose implications and connections extend far beyond one fictional family and one fictional variant of a disease.
I was also surprised by the science in this book – although it makes more sense now why I was selected to receive it. Although I don’t know that much about Alzheimer’s per se, I am familiar with most of the psychology, neurobiology, evolution, and genetics that he covers, to the point of having read several of the scientific articles that he cites. And while he conveys the ideas accurately and with real style – some of the passages about the origin of life and memory and human evolution were just gorgeous – I do worry slightly that non-scientists might find these passages either too much detail, or misinterpret the point of the science amidst the beautiful but slightly flowery language.
My only real issue with this book was that I wasn’t as emotionally invested in the characters as I would have hoped. I don’t know if this is a deficit of the book or of the reader – the characters were relatable, and I could sense that there was an emotional core to the book that rang true, but I just didn’t really ever connect to it… likely because I have no experience with or connection to anyone with Alzheimer’s. Still, I thought this was a compelling read, and will definitely look forward to the author’s future work. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I would recommend this enthusiastically to anyone who enjoys literary fiction about families, love, loss, and the twin ties of memory and DNA that make us human and bind us all together.
- p. 12: “Sometimes, it is almost as if the mythos of Original Sin was purposefully recast on our little farm for the modern audience: … my own hunchbacked, pilose body poorly cast as the fruit dangling from the branch” – covered with hair, esp. soft hair; furry.
- p. 113: “On certain warm nights, with the assistance of my home-brewed scotch and the drowsy limbs of the willow grazing the windowpanes, the memory is pellucid: Mama’s lips parting, her mouth opening and then issuing forth story after story after story of an imagined land, the land of the golden kingdom, where not a thought can be found.” – clear in meaning, expression, or style
- p. 115: “‘You look like a regular caveman,’ Marla said and laughed, and thus the sobriquet of my first three years of school, Ugh, the Caveman, was born.” – a nickname.