The Memory Keeper’s Daughter : Kim Edwards

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The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is my recent read and it is one of those books that can affect you profoundly .  Although I don’t pick up family dramas often / read them like I do suspense fiction – read race through the book in one-sitting like I NEED to know how it-all-ends and then relegating it to a spot on the bookshelf from where it will collect dust/come out once in a while for re-reads… These drama books won’t come out for even re-reads . They do rarely if they are extremely good even by the standards of crime fiction fanatic .

This book is one rare book (at-least for me) that actually  had me thinking about the characters for several days after finishing the book . The writing is simply brilliant that it made me slow down – to relax and savor every single line. Kim makes a passing reference to the biggest truths in our life very subtly but a keen reader would never miss out these beautiful lines –

 David did not want more children , and now that Paul was in school she had given up arguing with him about it . […] she often longed to hold another baby in her arms: like Angela this morning , the sweet warmth and weight of her . How lucky Kay was and didn’t even know it  

[..] there were other worlds , invisible , unknown , beyond imagination even [..]

[..] she had been a daughter and a student and a long distance-operator , roles she had handled with ease and assurance.Then she had been a fiancee` , a young wife , and a mother , and she had discovered that these words were far too small ever to contain the experience .

Plot Summary :

Norah Henry , Dr David Henry’s wife remarks  “Our world will never be the same.” before they start to the hospital for Norah’s first delivery during a blizzard . Little did she or Henry think about how much weight those words carry : Norah delivers twins unprecedentedly – a boy and a girl . While the boy is a healthy infant , the girl has Down’s syndrome . David secretly entrusts the baby to the care of a nurse while informing Norah that the child has died during birth .  Norah would not come to know about her daughter’s existence until 25 years later – but the secret which had weighed down David like ” a stone around his neck ” as he himself puts it has torn the family apart .

My thoughts about the story :

David , who is the ” memory-keeper ” ( long before he got the Memory Keeper camera from his wife for his birthday ) is one of characters whom I felt sorry for immensely by the time I came to the last few pages . Although , the first few pages make him seem  cold-hearted , delving deeper into his childhood helps the reader to understand why he did what he did ( Am I actually making sense now? ) . One can see that David’s beliefs shaped by his experiences influence his actions ( and eventually the course of the family history ) . Although , one may perceive that the story begins from the moment when David hands over the infant Phoebe to Caroline Gill , who would be her foster mother for the next 25 years , actually the story has begun long back from David’s childhood .

The character of David made me realize that what a gift it is , to be understood . It brings to my mind a line from Francis of Assisi’s prayer – ” to be understood as to understand “

He has seen what a huge burden / responsibility an ailing child can be and how the other children tend to get overlooked / neglected by the parents while they are tending to the sick child all the time . He has suffered and he definitely doesn’t want Paul to experience the same kind of neglect . He wants to be able to attend to Paul without having the needs of his specially-abled sister taking priority over his all-too-normal needs .

He has seen his parents struggle with catering to his sister’s special needs and the social and emotional void it puts the family in when you are caring for a differently – abled child . Eventually , his sister dies at a young age and his parents weren’t able to readjust to the new life without her and eventually his parents vanish completely from his life long before his marriage . In a way , it is a tragedy of his family .

He has known poverty at an early age and what  a stable career / financial security does for one . That is his reason for dissuading Paul from a music career which becomes a bone of contention between father and son during the teenage years . Paul goes on to become musician eventually but they never got a chance at repairing the rift in their relationship – right upto David’s death .

The character of David made me realize that what a gift it is to be understood by our family  & friends especially . It brings to my mind a line from Francis of Assisi’s prayer – ” to be understood as to understand ” . The Memory Keeper is as much David ‘s story as it is about Phoebe .

Although I might sound somewhat rude / insensitive , I couldn’t help feeling that Caroline was a better mother to Phoebe than Norah could / would  ever be . With Norah , it is exactly the opposite of David – she had my sympathy at the beginning of the book but not so much as the story progressed . Eventually when she is angry with David about concealing Phoebe ‘ s existence and whispers ” You bastard ” (while  burning up the photographs which he had taken over the years ) , I guess she lost the last ounce of sympathy I had for her . Her too self-serving , impulsive actions just widened the chasm in the marriage and eventually led to the breakup of the family . Her eventual ” forgiveness ” doesn’t matter at all ( at-least in my view ) .

The author has brought out the struggles of parents having children with Down ‘ s syndrome in getting the world to accept them and to extend to those children the same opportunities as the normal children in Caroline Gill & Al  . I wanted to know about the outlook India has towards Down’s syndrome children today and it is not good news . Thankfully , like Caroline and Al , the parents of these children themselves have taken charge to provide the children the “normal ” life .

 I read an article the other day about  a couple having started a Whats-app group ” Delhi Trisomy 21 ” to collaborate with other parents and to help them with doubts about caring for their children with Down’s syndrome . This was the statement given by a doctor when their daughter was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in 2003 –

”Don’t expect much from a child, she will remain in a vegetative state.”

 There are several such stories  of parents fighting social stigma / bleak outlook of the society about what these children can / cannot do . Yes , India has a very long way to go .

I would definitely urge you to pick up this book if you haven’t read earlier . It throws a powerful spotlight on the societal opinions about special-needs people . It is at-least very much relevant in India ( considering that the book was set in the 1964 – 1989 timeline ) but hopefully others might have come a long way .

This review might not be in the style of regular reviews but these days I am surprising myself when I am reading between the lines . I guess my reading got better after the reading slump – in that case , the reading slumps are not that bad after all…

 

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