To the Lighthouse: A review of Christy Ann Conlin’s new novel, The Memento

The Memento, by Christy Ann Conlin, Doubleday Canada, 2016

Christy Ann Conlin, the author of Heave, has published her second novel, and the result is nothing short of dazzling. The Memento is as much a gothic, often mordantly funny meditation on the persistence of memory as a living, perhaps undead thing, as it is the story of Fancy Mosher, a twelve-year old Bay of Fundy girl who may have inherited her grandfather’s gift—the power to see and commune with the dead. As the novel opens, we discover that this is her mother Marilyn’s hope, because her own disordered life is already marked by loss: the drowning of Fancy’s older brother, John Lee, many years before, and any claim to Fancy herself, who now lives with her artist grandfather in the Annapolis Valley. She comes to Fancy, drunk, looking for some kind of sign of forgiveness from John Lee, some kind of absolution. But Fancy, terrified by her mother’s hectic, hectoring melancholy, sees nothing—only her mother’s slow, sodden collapse into madness.

But as we are told, the memento shows itself to each person who possesses it in different ways; just as memory often materializes unbidden, so too can the dead—in dreams, in reverie, and, as we come to realize, to Fancy. The summer she turns twelve, she goes to work, under her caretaker Loretta’s charge, at Petal’s End, the rotting, sprawling mansion owned by the Parker family, abandoned after the First World War, and briefly revived as a convalescent hospital during the next. The remaining Parkers—Estelle and her daughters, the beautiful, talented Pomeline, and the seedy, mercurial Jenny—now ruled by fading matriarch Marigold, return for one final visit.

The children who roam the rooms of this suffocating house and its wilding gardens, care for it, fight with it, love and hate it by turns. They struggle as much with the future as they do the past. We come to realize that like the children in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, they are not entirely innocent or naïve. They do see things, they do have secrets, or secret longings. None of them may be innocent, but only some of them are guilty. Just as the Moshers are scarred by the past, and desperate to escape it, so too are the Parkers. Marigold, having suffered a stroke, lives in fey twilight, only half-hearing (or wanting to hear) the sinister and sordid goings-on that are slowly closing in on her family. Her son, Charlie, died at Petal’s End many years before, as a result of what is insisted was an accidental hanging. Her solution? To close off that wing of the house, and unwittingly allow what cannot be mourned to live on, to wait for reckoning. When she decides to give a late summer garden party, Marigold finally becomes a witness to her own complicity. But the reckoning she has so feared, and so scrupulously avoided, is only beginning.

One of the many strengths of the book is not just its evocation of the gothic—the unacknowledged crimes, the return of the repressed, the symbolic debts, the dead demanding retribution—all of these elements abound, but not in vulgar, programmatic ways. In taking her time to weave her sinister net, Conlin is even more stunning in her calling forth of the Annapolis Valley. Anyone who has lived or visited there, who has driven over, say, the winding roads of the South Mountain, will be immediately pulled back into its labyrinthine, tilled, but never quite tamed beauty. In this sense, the setting for the book is not mere decoration, nor merely a convenient locale. Rather, it is part and parcel of the way life must be lived along the Bay of Fundy, that its sculpting tides produce a land and seascape that, like memory, is persistent, quicksilver in its ambivalence, and troubled by contingency. One feels, internalizes, the ways in which Conlin has used the geography to give the narrative the weight of history, and the burden the past places on those who come after.

The final chapters take place roughly ten years later, and in some respects, become an uncanny reworking of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The pressure of history, the thrust of memory, force the novel’s pace to speed up accordingly. What might, at first glance, seem like an unwieldy shift in narrative stratagem is, I would argue, what gives its final pages their monumental shock. By the time we are well into the second, shorter part of the story, we are no longer observers, maintaining a comfortable, readerly distance. We confront the long-festering horror as Fancy confronts it; we experience precisely the same disorientation and horror she does. The dizzying speed of revelation produces, in its masterly way, the effect of what T. S. Eliot calls “genuine poetry”—one that “communicates before it is understood.”

Featured image: “Fundy,” by Stephen Downes.