The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

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The Memory Keeper's Daughter By Kim EdwardsThe Memory Keeper’s Daughter” was not a book I had initially set out to read; my local bookshop was offering best-selling paperbacks on a “buy one, get one half price offer”, and after choosing the one I really did want to read, this was my choice for the half price book. I was swayed by the fact that it was written by an assistant Professor of English, Kim Edwards, and was suggested by the booksellers to be literary fiction. It was also billed as a multi-million copy US number 1 bestseller, and books don’t achieve that without an awful lot people thinking it was very good (or at least one hell of a marketing campaign behind it). It certainly looked worth a try.

The book opens in 1964, with newlywed couple David and Norah Henry expecting their first child in the small town of Lexington, Kentucky. When Norah goes into labour late one night in the middle of a freak snowstorm, David decides the safest course of action is to drive his wife to the local clinic where he is a doctor, rather than risk taking her further to the hospital in such bad weather. The clinic nurse, Caroline Gill, manages to join the Henrys, but the obstetrician David calls out to assist him crashes his car in icy conditions on the way into town. There is only one option left: David must deliver his own child. His firstborn is a healthy baby boy, who he names Paul. Then, unexpectedly, the blessing doubles as Norah has a second child, this time a girl. Before the father can rejoice, however, he notices that his daughter has Down’s Syndrome and his moment of joy turns to tragedy. Because it is 1964, David believes there is no hope for this girl, and her future offers nothing but pain and grief for her and his family. As a child, his younger sister died from heart complications associated with Down’s syndrome, and he saw how the loss of her destroyed his parents. Determined that this should not be repeated in his family, he takes what he thinks is the logical and compassionate next step and asks Caroline to take his daughter to an institution in the next state, while he tells his heavily sedated wife that their second child died.

“Caroline, on the other hand, grows as a character from the challenges presented by her sudden change in circumstances, becoming something of a heroine in the book”

Caroline, an obedient woman with a crush on David, quietly obeys this order and sets out into the early morning with the newborn. Over the course of the journey, she develops misgivings about her task and grows to feel affection for the unwanted baby. When she arrives at the institution, she finds it to be an appalling place; grim, unwelcoming, and with little dignity afforded to its inmates. She carries the baby back to the car and drives her home, feeling that she can offer little Phoebe a better quality of life than she would have in the institution. Although acutely aware of how difficult it would be to raise this child – both medically, and socially in a world with little sympathy for unmarried mothers or disabilities – Caroline vows to do everything she can to raise the girl herself.

These two decisions form the core of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter“, and set up an intriguing premise that draws the reader into the story and makes you want to know what happens to the five central characters (Caroline, David, Norah, Paul and Phoebe) from that point onwards. Indeed, I found the first two chapters of this novel to be so compelling that I couldn’t leave the book alone. As the story intertwines and contrasts the greatly differing lives of the twins Paul and Phoebe, we see them growing up in different environments into totally different people over the following 25 years. The fact that Phoebe survived and thrived despite her father’s bleak predictions for her life is quite tragic, as he deprived his own wife of the love of a daughter.

“But this is more than just a straightforward moral tale – Edwards also uses it as a history of feminism. A key theme in it is women being denied choice and struggling to reclaim power.”

It seems clear that the key question that Edwards was asking when she wrote this book was “how could anyone live with themselves if they did this?”. The answer, it seems, is not very well. The world of the Henry family, so recently one of hope and joy, becomes a melancholy place. Haunted by the decision he made, David manages to be there physically for his wife but is emotionally unavailable for her, as he cannot share her grief. This conflict begins to take its toll on the Henry marriage, and is strongly felt by young Paul as he grows up in a world defined by the void left by his sister. Caroline, on the other hand, grows as a character from the challenges presented by her sudden change in circumstances, becoming something of a heroine in the book – she is the one person in the novel who seems to have an infallible moral compass. As a story exploring moral values, then, it is somewhat heavy-handed and prescriptive; we are told in no uncertain terms that what David did was wrong and that bad things therefore happened to him, while saintly Caroline gets more lucky breaks than chance alone might account for after saving Phoebe. We are given no room for any grey areas or moral ambiguity, which bugged me slightly. While I do agree with the author that David shouldn’t have done what he did, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Caroline’s actions weren’t exactly snow white either. Remember, Caroline didn’t consult Norah about the fate of her daughter any more than David did.

But this is more than just a straightforward moral tale – Edwards also uses it as a history of feminism. A key theme in it is women being denied choice and struggling to reclaim power. At the start of book, we find both Norah and Caroline as quiet, passive women awaiting saviour through marriage and romance respectively. By the time it finishes 25 years later, both characters have changed beyond recognition, becoming stronger, more assertive, more independent, although in different ways. The comparisons between Norah and her free-spirited sister Bree throughout the story serve to highlight the feminist theme, picking up on points such as the differing relationships the two women experience.

The landscape of regret and family secrets is hardly new territory to literature, and while “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” is a solid enough read I don’t think it ultimately achieves all it set out to do. The writing is readable enough, but is uneven and lacks the elegance and poetic touches you might expect from a literature professor or indeed from a novel billed as literary fiction. After the strong opening chapters, my interest in the story gradually dwindled as it developed, and by the end it was something of an effort to pick the book up at all. I have heard other reviewers describe it as powerful and moving, but I didn’t really experience this – perhaps after so recently reading Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk about Kevin” (which was literary and powerfully moving) this book was never going to have the same impact on me. It was adequately enjoyable, but not worth buying. It is a good book but not a great one; one to borrow from the library rather than to buy if you want to bother with it at all.

Paperback, 408 Pages, including a short interview with the author.
Published by Penguin (2005).
RRP £7.99.


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Memory Keeper's Daughter (The)
by Kim Edwards

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Written by collingwood21