Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Memory

Memory by Margaret Mahy
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's review
Nov 06, 11

bookshelves: borrowed, fiction
Read in November, 2011

I think this is Mahy's masterpiece. It's not her most well-known book, but it's the one that's stuck with me.

Aged 14, Jonny Dart watched his sister fall to her death from a cliff face. Five years later, he's trying to find the one other person who saw it happen - his sister's best friend, Bonny Benedicta - so he can check whether the way he remembers Janine's fall is the way it happened. But he's doing it by arriving drunk at Bonny's adoptive parents' out-of-town house fresh from a fistfight at a pub and a yelling match with his father outside the police station. He finds and scrawls down Bonnie's address on his hand, but when he wakes up a few hours later, face down in a flowerbed on a traffic island, his memory of this is gone. He keep searching for Bonny, but the person he finds is Sophie - an elderly woman who is having her own problems with memories.

For reasons hard to explain, Jonny ends out camping out at Sophie's dilapidated home: cleaning out the fridge, sorting out the cats, bathing the fragile old woman, and gradually learning her story, every memory of the past reclaimed but lacking context; every impression of the present untrustworthy and confused. Sophie's memory won't come back. But while Jonny is with her, he begins to piece the last five years together in a way that helps his life make a new kind of sense:

In the beginning of this story, swollen with apparitions, he had stalked through the city and it had given in to him - had offered Bonny and Nev, to match up with the ghosts of memory. Exorcising these ghosts, he was set free of them at last. Yet he had lost something too, for part of their substance had come out of him in the first place. Besides, being haunted had had a seductive glamour about it. Jonny had seen there was a chance to escape from the desolate patches of life by becoming a demon, impervious to pain, but in the end he had dwindled back to being something more ordinary, and was glad to be restored.

That word 'ordinary' is important. Jonny's not ordinary. He saw his sister die in front of him. He moved in with a woman struck down with Alzheimer's on a whim. And yet, in the world of YA, he is normal. He's not gifted with extraordinary powers, or set upon a quest on which he will find hidden depths, or a symbol of youthful alienation or rampant capitalism or technological revolution. Instead, he is what an arty 19 year-old in Christchurch in the mid 1980s was like; floppy black hat, floppy fringe, op-shop blazer, drinking cheap beer and cheaper wine in pubs with his mates, playing back-up drum in an underground band, suffering from a crush on an older girl he knew years ago ... and not quite sure where any of this is going.

What's also not normal or ordinary is the extraordinarily tender relationship Mahy draws up between Sophie and Jonny. This is the book that showed me that growing old may be terrifying - a time when electrical appliances turn on you, when family become strange to you, when the past is closer than the present. When you might be alone, and no-one knows or particularly cares. Mahy brings Jonny into Sophie's life in a way that's not cloying or message-laden. It's touching, funny, thought-provoking, and utterly original.
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