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The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman

A week ago I posted an interview with the vastly popular Rowan Coleman, author of The Memory Book. (You can read her interview here.) Here is my review of The Memory Book itself…

The Memory Book, part of Richard and Judy's Summer Book Club 2014.

The Memory Book, part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Book Club 2014.

I bought this book in the first couple of weeks into starting my new job. I was staying with a friend’s family at the time while I looked for a new house in a new city, and it provided me with a little escape from my exciting but extremely overwhelming life at the time. I would take a train to work each morning, and before leaving the station I would pop into WHSmith and buy a different book. Generally, I was buying whatever was in the current book charts there. And while The Memory Book was rightfully in those charts, it was actually my introduction to Rowan Coleman personally that lead me to buy her book. Had I not been so busy and in a world of my own, I would probably have discovered the book sooner.

This book was unlike any I’d read before; it was both heartbreaking and heart-warming, hilarious and sad all at the same time. Exploring themes of love, loss, memory and perception, it centres around a woman named Claire, a middle-aged mother of two who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and who slowly deteriorates throughout the novel. Her husband, Greg, buys her a large red scrapbook, in which Claire and the rest of her family write down memories of the past and thoughts of the present.

What made this novel so intrinsically fascinating was that it is written in the point of view of each family member, including Claire herself. Rowan Coleman’s ability to show us a perception of the world through the eyes and mind of someone with Alzheimer’s, alongside those of the family who are suffering around her, is truly breathtaking.

The thing I’m scared about the most is losing words.

Claire hasn’t yet lost her memory for good; it comes and goes, usually at the most dangerous or inconvenient of times. Sometimes it’s just words that slip her mind, other times it’s people, and occasionally Claire still believes that she is a child or a teenager and doesn’t remember that she’s a fully-grown woman with a family. Claire recognises her husband and knows that they are married, but often cannot remember how it felt to be in love with him. She leaves the house to go somewhere and forgets where she’s going, and who she is. Often she feels herself slipping away and tries to cling to her memories and normal consciousness for as long as she can. And when the memories and the world all come rushing back to her, you can almost feel Claire’s relief that she can understand and comprehend the world around her once more. This is what makes the narrative both heartbreaking and fascinating in equal measures.

…all the ill-fitting, scrambled-up mosaic pieces that make up the world around me fall into place and I see everything.

In writing the character of Claire’s oldest daughter Caitlin, Coleman has managed to create a thoroughly loveable and strong young woman whose internal struggle lies in being strong for her mother and dealing with her own frightening problems simultaneously. She has never known her real father, and so losing her mother in such a slow and painful way is incredibly hard for her to bear. But throughout it all, she never stops trying to protect Claire, and in this way the novel beautifully portrays the interdependence within the family. As strong as she tries to be for Claire, however, the little girl in her still comes out and the reader realises that she still needs her mother as much as her mother now needs her.

I know that, for now at least, I am around ten years old to her, and it doesn’t matter, not now. Because I feel safe.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is the pain that Claire’s husband Greg goes through as his wife treats him like a stranger in his own house. Claire knows who Greg is, in principle, but her love has disappeared and often Greg makes her feel intimidated and uncomfortable, through no fault of his own. The passages written by Greg within the memory book are so heartfelt and emotional and show Greg’s inner strength. Even if Claire does not remember him, he refuses to leave and vows to stick by her until the end. He lives for those few-and-far-between moments when Claire remembers him, and her love comes flooding back. although these moments become less and less frequent.

Throughout all this sadness, however, the book is also very funny. The comic aspect of the novel stops the narrative from being all doom and gloom and gives the reader some regular light-hearted relief.

“I never liked him…I only met him once, but he brought me a box of chocolates when I was on a diet.”

Claire and her family try their hardest to keep things as normal as possible, and Coleman has succeeded in showing the reader how important love, family, and laughter is in life, no matter what is going on around you. Claire realises this herself, and often writes positive and amusing stories in the memory book for her youngest daughter Esther to read, so that the memories she has of her mother are happy ones. Coleman portrays in Claire a selfless, loving, sweet woman and mother, but who often makes mistakes and ill-conceived judgements. These only serve to make her more believable and relatable as a central character.

The book comes at a time when Alzheimer’s disease is becoming more and more topical. (The publishing company I work for, for instance, is sponsoring the Alzheimer’s charity this year.) So much is yet to be learned about this terrible and so far unconquered disease. With the publication and popularity of novels such as this, the literary world can help spread the word and raise awareness.

Charming, sad, funny, and thought-provoking with an unexpected twist of an ending, The Memory Book is a complete triumph for Rowan Coleman.

You can read more about Rowan Coleman here.

Follow her on Twitter @rowancoleman

Follow the publisher @EburyPublishing

More about the publisher here.

Buy the book here.

Have you read The Memory Book? Please tell me what you thought of it in the comments below!

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