Australian-born Nina Jameson has made a satisfying life for herself in London: she has a successful job as a consultant on memorial projects; a city house and a country cottage; and a loving, attentive husband. Lured home to Melbourne by the chance to work on an intriguing memorial project, Nina finds herself plunged once again into the lives of her family and friends, lives made claustrophobic with the weight of shared memories. Nina’s sister, Zoe, is enduring a strained marriage to Elliot, while Nina’s best friend, Sean, seems as aimless and lost in his 40s as he was in his 20s. Deeply entwined in the memories – if not lives – of each is Ramsay Blake, musical genius but failed human being.
In The Memory Trap, Andrea Goldsmith presents readers with a touching study of memory and how it influences us. Nina’s work as a consultant on memorial projects allows a fascinating examination of how society chooses to remember the people and events deemed important, and how the meaning of those collective memories, as well as the memories themselves, change over generations. She meets with a well-meaning group, Together in Freedom, who want to build a different kind of memorial; not one to a war or a great politician but ‘a monument to promote religious tolerance, unity in diversity, individual courage, and freedom for all’.
Though Nina realises almost immediately the difficulties and, if she’s honest, impossibilities of the project, she relishes the chance to talk to the group and find out what motivations lie behind their proposed monument. She relishes, too, offering them her views on how public memorials work. She suggests the group might take inspiration from examples around the world to create a feeling of peace and a place for contemplation, like the Martyrs of the Deportation monument in Paris, with its cells and inspirational quotes engraved into the walls, or the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park:
… [the fountain’s] flow cascading down the slope in two directions. It was lively and yet hypnotic; she could not have deflected her gaze even if she wanted … the channel of water sloshing and hissing over the small rock falls and sluicing into the granite walls, down down down to the lowest point where water from both sides of the ring met in a suddenly calm pool … The sound of the water, the breeze, the trees, the broad sky, even the muffled sounds of the other visitors created a rare space.
Memories dominate Nina’s private life in Melbourne, too, and seem as stifling as the heatwave that coincides with her visit. Nina cannot help but bring her professional experience to her personal relationships, attempting to get the people she loves to talk about their lives, but Zoe refuses to discuss her troubled marriage and Sean is more interested in his next research trip than in trusting Zoe with his fears and disappointments.
Ramsay Blake is the only person from Nina’s past who seems unchanged and unwilling to change – he is as selfish, self-involved and reliant on his stepfather, George Tiller, as he ever was. Memory is crucial for Ramsay, too. His career as a celebrated pianist relies on him memorising, as well as interpreting, the music he plays, and he understands memory in a straightforward way that Nina finds too simplistic. For Ramsay:
‘Memory’s physical, it’s in the body. Memory’s a matter of will. Practice and willpower. If people forget, it’s because they’re lazy, or they lack concentration, or they lack determination … Memory, remembering, lodges in the body; it’s always personal.’
But Ramsay himself is a monument of sorts to the childhood he and his brother, Sean, shared with Nina and Zoe. And it is because Ramsay is unchanged that Zoe and Sean have been unable to slip away from the influence he has over them. Nina herself feels the pull of Ramsay when she returns to Melbourne; his relationship with Zoe is ostensibly the reason Nina chose to make a life overseas, though it becomes clear that other influences also encouraged her to flee, not least an affair with a man many years her senior. When life at last forces Ramsay to change – however minutely – Zoe and Sean find that they are able to move on from the troubles they have carried with them since childhood.
Deftly and beautifully written, The Memory Trap is a moving study of the power of memories and what can happen if we let that power overwhelm us. It is also an uplifting tale of what happens when someone chooses to step out from under the weight of memory to build a fulfilling life.
Andrea Goldsmith The Memory Trap Fourth Estate 2013 PB 352pp $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor in Sydney. http://www.kyliemmason.com
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.