The Story of Forgetting is Stefan Merrill Block’s debut novel. It is a sprawling work which merges realism and fantastical elements in a story spanning hundreds of years and many generations of the same family. During its best moments the storytelling is beautiful and captivating. At other times the novel feels a little unsure of itself and disjointed. There are so many strands to the narrative it seems unclear what Block is trying to accomplish.
Three separate storylines are interwoven throughout the novel each of which follows a member of the same family line as they deal with the implications of a rare (fictionalised), version of hereditary early onset Alzheimer’s. We meet Millicent Haggard, an English emigrant who brings the strain of the illness to Texas when she moves to America in the early 19th Century. Abel Haggard, an ageing hermit who is holed up alone on a sprawling Texas after early onset Alzheimer’s has claimed his twin brother. And fifteen year old Seth Waller, Abel’s grandson who is trying to trace the roots of his family’s genetic illness after his mother is diagnosed with early onset. The novel also incorporates a family folk tale -passed from one generation to the next- about a fictional land called Isidora where people are free of the sorrows of memory.
As a concept The Story of Forgetting is really interesting. I’m a magical realist myself and always drawn to writers who used the fantastical as allegory and metaphor in their work. However, whilst the allegory of Isidora is employed in quite a heavy-handed way throughout this novel, it just never seems to connect properly with the narrative. Clearly Block put a lot of effort into the research for this novel. The notes at the close of the book list his reading and research. I thoroughly respect writers who put the hard work into learning about dementia before they attempt to write about the illness in a fictional context. There’s a lot of pseudo-science woven through the novel and at times I did feel it distracted from the characters and the flow of the story. The characters of Abel and Seth are the parts I enjoyed most here and they felt somewhat overshadowed by both the fantastical elements and the clumsily deployed pseudo-science. I also struggled a little with the language Block used to describe Alzheimer’s. It’s consistently referred to as a familial curse and there’s no attempt to explore the possibility of living well with a dementia diagnosis. Some of the portrayals of people living with dementia feel really accurate but pretty hopeless which sits at odds with the whimsical, fantastical tone of the novel. The Story of Forgetting is a decent first novel with some really interesting ideas which ultimately failed to take off for me.
The Story of Forgetting was published by Faber and Faber in 2008