I received this book for free from NetGalley, St. Martin's Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on September 6th 2016
Source: NetGalley, St. Martin's Press
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3.5 Stars. A coming-of-age story about hope and continuing to live when all seems lost.
Tuesday, and those planes, they’ve broken something. Permanently. And in the process, they’ve changed everything. And everyone.
September 11, 2001: Two planes fly into the Twin Towers. Kyle Donohue’s NYC high school is evacuated after they witness the South Tower collapsing. While fleeing to his home on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, he spots an ash-covered girl wearing costume wings. She looks as if she’s preparing to leap off the bridge, but Kyle convinces her to come home with him. She is confused and has no memory of who she is. When Kyle arrives at his apartment with the girl, only his uncle is at home. Uncle Matt moved in after he was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. Kyle has a lot to worry about: his mom and sister are scheduled the fly home from California that day, his father is a first responder who is probably at the scene of the attack, and his uncle’s caretaker is unable to get to work. The phone service is completely unreliable, further compounding his fears about his family’s welfare. Until the family can hopefully reunite, everything is on Kyle’s shoulders. He tries to help the girl regain her memories, but part of him doesn’t want her to figure it out. He knows he should take her to the precinct or a hospital, but she refuses and he doesn’t want to let her go. She is one piece of hope to cling to during a time of uncertainty.
How can a person get up and go to school on a Tuesday morning, their life all normal and fine, and then a few minutes later, someone they love is dead? How can people be here, then, boom, gone? Life should be more permanent than that.
The whole book takes place over four days: 9/11/01 to 9/14/01. The story alternates between Kyle’s and the girl’s perspectives. Kyle’s part of the story is told traditionally, while the girl’s voice is via poem. The perspective switches constantly within chapters, but it’s an easy transition because the style is so different. The poetry fits perfectly with the girl and her “garbled” thoughts. I do have difficulty with poetry and that was no different here, especially when the girl would allude to snippets of memory from her previous life. However, most of it was easy enough for me to parse! Most of the time is spent at the Donohue apartment, but Kyle occasionally walks around and experiences the unusualness of the situation: the dust, the smell, the lack of people on the streets, and the military presence. When Kyle ventures out, I felt the confusion, the uncertainty, and the sense of community. Those that were excluded from that sense of community because of heightened suspicions are briefly mentioned. The author also did a good job giving a global perspective. While such a large-scale act of war on United States soil may have been rare, terrible tragedies happen every day. The situation gives Kyle greater empathy for his best friend who escaped genocide in his home country.
Change comes in two ways. The first is the blindside way that comes without warning. … But other times, change comes gradually, in that sure, steady way you can sense coming a mile away. Or maybe a day away. Or, maybe, a few short hours. And since you know it’s coming, you’re supposed to prepare. Brace yourself against the stinging blow. But just because you plant your feet wider, doesn’t mean the blow won’t take you down.
The characters in this book were my favorite part! I was more interested in the way the characters reacted to their current circumstances than I was in the mystery of the girl’s identity. Kyle is such a sweet kid. He grows up so much during the tumultuous week and he really steps up to the plate. There are so many aspects of Kyle’s life that I was interested in watching unfold. Kyle and his dad have a difficult time relating to one another. His dad has traditional views on masculinity and doesn’t understand Kyle’s sensitivity or his creative pursuits. Kyle develops a crush on the girl, but he feels a sense of duty towards her and is very concerned that acting on his feelings would be taking advantage of her. I especially loved Kyle’s relationship with Uncle Matt. They already had a close relationship, but Kyle has never had to assume caretaking duties before. I loved the way they teased each other. I also loved how the girl immediately identified with Uncle Matt, who also has a hard time verbalizing his thoughts.
“Remember how you asked me earlier how it feels, how I feel, to be me right now? To remember things and not remember? … Well, it feels like that, Kyle, back there. Like I’m adrift, in soaking wet clothes that are too heavy with the weight of things I don’t even know. And then the water doesn’t drown me but carries me, and for a second it lightens everything a little, and I feel momentarily hopeful. But always, there are things, beneath the waves, threatening to pull me under. And the land is right there, close enough to swim to—I can see it—but I’m not sure I want to come back to shore again. It’s like I’m here, solid, but I’m not connected to anything. I’m completely untethered.”
While the book takes place during 9/11, it is mostly about dealing with trauma and uncertainty. Kyle clings to any bit of normalcy. Some of the characters stay in denial to avoid dealing with difficult realities. Others expect the worst and are hesitant to accept hopeful news, in order to avoid being disappointed. It shows how our families can keep us grounded, even when we have trouble relating to them or they can’t be there physically. There is a scene at the end, where the girl looks at her reflection that was especially touching. What was your original face before your mother and father were born?
“Sometimes never being ready is the best kind of ready to be.”
It’s hard to believe the 9/11 attacks were fifteen years ago. It has remained at the forefront of public consciousness. The Memory of Things captures the time and place so well. It’s a thoughtful story with a relatable protagonist. Highly recommended for young adult readers.
Are you okay? his eyes ask. I know that’s what he wants to know. And I guess I am. What are my choices? What else am I going to be other than okay?
(Side Note: I just got used to stories set in the 1980s being historical fiction, and now the 2000s have hit that milestone? :-O)