ARC Review – Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on September 6th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Goodreads. All opinions are my own.
The powerful story of two teenagers finding friendship, comfort, and first love in the days following 9/11 as their fractured city tries to put itself back together.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, sixteen-year-old Kyle Donohue watches the first twin tower come down from the window of Stuyvesant High School. Moments later, terrified and fleeing home to safety across the Brooklyn Bridge, he stumbles across a girl perched in the shadows. She is covered in ash and wearing a pair of costume wings. With his mother and sister in California and unable to reach his father, a New York City detective likely on his way to the disaster, Kyle makes the split-second decision to bring the girl home. What follows is their story, told in alternating points of view, as Kyle tries to unravel the mystery of the girl so he can return her to her family. But what if the girl has forgotten everything, even her own name? And what if the more Kyle gets to know her, the less he wants her to go home? The Memory of Things tells a stunning story of friendship and first love and of carrying on with our day-to-day living in the midst of world-changing tragedy and unforgettable pain—it tells a story of hope.
Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things is an incredible book that revolves around the horrific events of September 11th. I have to admit I was a little nervous going into the book since this is such a sensitive topic, but was ultimately very pleased with Polisner’s respectful handling of it. Although it was sometimes painful to read because it brings back so many terrifying memories that we all felt that day and for so long afterwards, The Memory of Things is also a moving and ultimately uplifting story that shows the strength of Americans, and especially that of New Yorkers, to rise up and keep going in the face of something that could have brought us to our knees as a country.
One aspect I loved most about The Memory of Things is the way Polisner presents the story using a dual narrative perspective. Her writing is beautiful, lyrical in fact, and I like that she puts us inside the minds of these two teenagers, Kyle and the girl he finds on the Brooklyn Bridge as he is evacuating out of lower Manhattan. When Kyle discovers the girl crouched on the bridge, she doesn’t know who she is and appears to be suffering from either shock or amnesia. The way Polisner distinguishes between Kyle’s point of view and the girl’s is unique as well. Kyle’s perspective is presented in pretty straightforward prose, but as we switch to the girl’s perspective, we are suddenly presented with a more poetic style – fragmented memories, broken thoughts and powerful, sometimes disturbing, images all swirled together. We alternate between the two perspectives throughout the novel and as then the girl starts to remember more and more details about who she is, Polisner adjusts her writing style to reflect that shift – the girl’s thoughts become more coherent and cohesive, the broken images and memories start to come together, and the language shifts to a more prose-like state, although still quite poetic.
Another quality I loved about this book is that even though it is technically a book about 9/11, the tragedy itself is not the primary focus. The Memory of Things is really more of a coming of age story and it’s also a story about strength, hope, resiliency, friendship, and about finding out who you are when times are tough or uncertain. Kyle is confronted by the real possibility that he may have lost his entire family and has to figure out what he’s going to do if that turns out to be the case. In particular, he has a handicapped uncle living with him who needs to be cared for and so he really has to step up and be the man of the house while he waits to find out if his family is okay. In many ways, Kyle learns that he is much stronger than he ever would have given himself credit for prior to 9/11. Kyle’s uncle is partially paralyzed from a recent accident and can do very little for himself. Showing maturity beyond his years, Kyle takes over the responsibility of getting his uncle out of bed and to the bathroom and assists him in there as needed, then helps to get him dressed and fed and otherwise cared for.
In addition to taking over the primary caregiver role at home, Kyle also befriends the young lady he brought into his home in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. She can remember nothing about herself aside from bits and pieces of broken memories – ballet movements, swimming in the ocean, brief flashes of her parents, all of these interspersed with horrid images that she witnessed the morning of 9/11. Kyle doesn’t want to just send her back out on the streets but also hates the idea of just dumping her at a hospital or at a police station in hopes that someone claims her. So he makes the decision to allow her to stay with him. In some ways I think he does it as much for himself as he does for her. Trying to help her remember who she is gives him something to focus on and helps him stay fairly grounded, considering all that is going on just outside their door. In the short time they are together, Kyle and the girl grow quite close – close enough that Kyle considers the possibility that he’s falling in love with her. I think it’s more the need to make some kind of a human connection – something life affirming in the face of all of the lives that were lost that day, but whatever it was for them, the bond between them was quite touching and I think it served to help them get through those first few terrifying days after the tragedy as they waited and hoped to be reunited with their loved ones.
The Memory of Things is truly one of the most beautiful and moving stories I’ve read so far this year and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone. Since it’s a young adult novel, I would also especially recommend it to those who are not old enough to have witnessed the events of 9/11 themselves.
Rating: 4.5 stars
I’ve seen this around and wondered how the author tackled the 9/11 aspect — I am SO thrilled at how you’ve described the author ended up tackling it. I think sometimes that’s the best way to tackle a subject like this. And Kyle — in the space of one afternoon, his entire world changes, that’s also a difficult topic to go into, but from what you described, the author did wonderfully with it.
Yeah, I agree. I’ve read a few books that have tried to use 9/11 as their setting, but I think the way Polisner did it is, by far, the best one I’ve read.