I’m going to be really honest. It took me longer than usual to get into Carnegie Medal winning writer, Margaret Mahy’s Memory. The novel opens with a quite lengthy, and somewhat confusing section which introduces us to the main protagonist, Jonny Dart. He’s drunk and angry and trying to get to the bottom of an incident which happened many years previously. He wants to track down a girl named Bonnie. It took me quite a few chapters to work out why and, even then, I wasn’t really interested in the backstory about his sister’s tragic and untimely death. Memory really began for me, the moment Jonny stumbled across an elderly lady, pushing a shopping trolley across a car park in the middle of the night.
In some ways Sophie, is the archetypal crazy old lady I frequently encounter in novels. She has Dementia. She lives alone. She dresses oddly and doesn’t eat properly and has let her house fall into disrepair. She owns many, many cats. She is, like every other crazy old lady, firmly stuck in the past. What saves Sophie from becoming a stereotype is the way Mahy gives her quirks and foibles peculiar to her. There’s also a level of gritty honesty here which I’ve rarely encountered in those YA books which tackle the subject of Dementia. Through a series of slightly contrived events, Jonny moves in with Sophie and becomes -if only temporarily- her live-in carer. Mahy gives the reader an unflinching picture of what it means for a young man in his early twenties to care for an elderly stranger, especially one of the opposite sex.
She describes Jonny’s concern over the state of Sophie’s house with a wonderfully accurate matter-of-fact tone. Similarly, Jonny despairs of her eating habits but when she gets distressed offers her a packet of biscuits and tells her to comfort eat the lot. There’s also no squeamishness when it comes to describing the more personal aspects of Sophie’s care such as dealing with her incontinence and helping her to bath. So many of these ‘young person befriends a quirky senior’ narratives shy away from tackling the physical aspect of caring. I’m grateful that Mahy included these vignettes and also offers her readers a kind of manual for how two people can negotiate around each other’s vulnerabilities to find a means of caring for each other. There’s a lot of dignity at work in this book.
By the time I’d finished Memory, I was captivated by the relationship between Sophie and Jonny Dart. I loved their humour and their warmth. I loved the way the story is grounded in the New Zealand where Mahy grew up. I could’ve done without the flashback episodes or the snippets of lyrics from pop songs which made the book feel a little dated in places when actually the central relationship reads as incredibly contemporary and really fresh.
Memory was published by Harper Collins in 2002