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“Memory…given to us in order that we may learn, understand and build upon our previous achievements”

Mister MemoryI first came to Marcus Sedgwick from a chance find of one of his children’s books, Blood Red, Snow White, in a charity shop. Sedgwick is a magnificent writer, mainly for the YA market, managing a deft balance between page-turning plot, fascinating, complex character, crafted writing, and balancing sometimes complex themes. Blood Red Snow White was typical Sedgewick, based on the real-life story of children’s writer Arthur Ransome, taking in fairy-story and its tropes, and, where Ransome crossed world events, the Russian Revolution, a love story, and espionage.

A couple of years ago, he wrote his first book for adults, the absorbing A Love Like Blood, a very different take on the over-crowded, often drearily repetitive vampire-lit market. Which I normally avoid like the plague, except when a proven, rather lit-ficcy writer strays into the territory. So I was eager to jump at the chance of Mister Memory.

Set in post-Commune Paris, at the tail end of the nineteenth century, this is – with many, many genuinely shocking, genuinely apposite twists, several things : a tale of corruption and sexual scandal in high places; a police procedural, not to mention police cover up; a political thriller; a murder mystery; an exploration of theories of ‘mind medicine’ at the time, and a unpicking of memory itself, its mysterious workings, and philosophical reflections about it.

That’s one of the ways in which powerful men become powerful; they do despicable things, and if they get away with it, then stories are rewritten, facts are ignored. History, as we know, is written by the victor

The story, recounted through 3 viewpoints, is this: ‘Mister Memory’ himself, Marcel Després, a man who can forget nothing he reads or experiences, Inspector Petit, a man with tragedy in his past, and Doctor Morel, elderly ‘Alienist’ at the Salpêtrière hospital for those seen as mentally impaired. The third person narrator/author guides us overall.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Commons, Wiki Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887.

 Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Commons, Wiki

Marcel, returning early from his ‘Mister Memory’ cabaret act, finds his flirtatious, sexy cabaret dancer wife in flagrante delicto with one of her many admirers. In jealous rage, he shoots her dead, an immediately gives himself up to the police. Petit, investigating the crime is astonished to discover that, far from going through normal channels of police procedure, trial and sentence, Marcel has instead immediately been whisked away to the Salpêtrière. Motivated by a personal desire to see proper justice done, as he perceives it – the death penalty, or at least transportation to the ‘dry guillotine’ (Devil’s Island) Petit begins an off-the-cuff investigation. Initially he thinks he is carrying out normal procedures, but is inexplicably and heavily warned off the case. Meanwhile, Doctor Morel, a rather dry, unempathic clinician, is fascinated by the opportunities Marcel presents, in terms of scientific understanding of the mind and its processes.

Devil's Island, made infamous by the true Dreyfus Affair, and even more so by the largely fictional book, adapted into a film with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman

Devil’s Island, made infamous by the true Dreyfus Affair, and even more so by the largely fictional book, Papillon, adapted into a film with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman

I found this a generally very absorbing, and at times, genuinely jaw-dropping in shock and surprise, read (for the right reasons)

I have some reservations, mainly because I felt that Sedgwick, in this one, offered fewer over-arching reflections for me to think about. Though there were a few of these, he generally sews more of them seamlessly into his books.

This was also a little over-long, even at only 326 pages. There were times when the various investigations and unravellings – Petit’s, Dr Morel’s, and Marcus’-through-Dr Morel, lumbered a little. But there were always those jaw-drop moments to absolutely gather and drive renewed forward momentum in my reading.

Not to mention some passages, in the light of present political happenings, which made me wince and wryly shiver:

Do you know what memory is for?……… Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that memory is about the past – it is, after all about remembering things that have happened. But that is not what memory is for. The ability to recall past events is a mere by-product of what memory does for us. It was given to us….in order that we might be able to negotiate the future……That is what memory is about: the future, not the past. The future.

I finished my reading of this on the Hundred Year Anniversary of the battle of the Somme. In sombre moodMarcus Sedgwick, some time ago

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published in the UK on hard and digital on July 14th, but sadly it looks as if Statesiders will only have access to this on the Kindle on that date – hard publication is showing as 2017.

Mister Memory Amazon UK
Mister Memory Amazon USA