I don’t read as much historical crime fiction as I used to which is a shame. There’s nothing like being transported to another time and place with a dash of murder in it. It’s also nice to read something completely different occasionally and Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick is certainly a cut above the usual crime novel.
We’re in fin-de-siecle Paris where Marcel Després shoots dead his wife, Ondine after catching her in a compromising situation with her lover. Sent to an institution, Asile de Salpêtrière, his doctor Morel discovers that Després has a memory that forgets nothing. Along with Inspector Petit from the Sûreté who is assigned to the case, they delve into Després’s life and history to assemble the portrait of a remarkable man.
There’s a wealth of fascinating historical detail in Mister Memory. Asile de Salpêtrière was a famous Parisian institution where women diagnosed with hysteria were placed by the unscrupulous and ignorant. Predominantly, therefore, a female institution which has opened up to men, Després is portrayed as an innocent amongst the criminal and insane. It’s tempting to try to put a modern diagnosis on his condition. A memory that never forgets anything, an inability to recognise faces and an essential innocence suggests a form of autism. The book though is as much as the men around the case as Després. We’re treated to sumptuous descriptions of Paris and the minutiae of a fascinating investigation.
Mister Memory is a beautifully written tale of the limitless of memory and the boundaries placed on love.
I love audio books and I often listen to them in the car. I tend, however, to focus on my existing library rather than downloading new titles. My subscription to Audible lapsed as I don’t have time to listen to the books I was downloading. In April, however, I flew to Iceland and knew that I’d then have a long five hour drive ahead of me. As a crime fiction reviewer I’m often asked what I think of a particular title. I tend to shy away from what’s being heavily promoted. As regular readers of this website know, I like translated crime fiction and books that are a little bit different. No-one, however, could failed to have noticed the juggernaut which is the phenomenon of The Girl on the Train. A long car journey was the perfect way to form an opinion on the book.
Rachel is an overweight, divorced alcoholic who, despite losing her job in the city, continues to make the commute into London every day. She passes the house where she once lived and where her ex-husband now resides with his new wife and baby. The train regularly stops outside a neighbouring house where Rachel fantasises about the life of a couple who have a seemingly perfect relationship. When the woman, Megan, goes missing, Rachel feels she has important news to tell the police about Megan and a man she was seen with. But her alcoholism and obsession with her former husband make her an unreliable witness.
I’ve read mixed reviews of this book from ‘over-hyped’ to ‘excellent’. I have to say that I’m firmly in the second camp. Partly, I think, this is due to the premise of the book. I too used to commute into central London and remember the days of the train stopping at a particular junction and staring into bedroom windows. The book also brought back the culture of long hours, drinking on an empty stomach and aspirational lifestyles. Hawkins is also excellent at keeping the tension going throughout the book. I found listening compulsive and couldn’t wait to return to the book.
There are three female narrators: Rachel, Megan in the months leading up to her disappearance and Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s former husband. I have seen comments about the difficulty in distinguishing between these three voices. This certainly wasn’t the case with the audio book and all three narrators were excellent. Hawkins takes the concept of the unreliable narrator and multiplies it threefold. It was a clever device.
Inevitably a book that’s had this much attention will fall short in some areas but overall I thought it an excellent story and I can understand it’s popularity. There’s always something attractive about a protagonist that’s full of faults and character of Rachel was the element that pulled this story together.
I’d love to hear what other readers thought of the book.