A semi-successful debut tells the odd tale of a town afflicted—after an accident at the local chemical factory—with the burden of complete memory: it will disable its residents for days.
Odd, since if there’s one thing that people in novels do, surely it’s that they remember. So the effect of having a plot that involves characters who remember their lives is at once disorienting and unsatisfying—particularly when the story-trigger is a rather ordinary one about a toxic spill at a pharmaceutical plant. The main focus is on a couple, Susannah and Todd, and a father and daughter, Ray and Sophie. Ray is a professor at the local college, a psychologist whom Todd approaches when seeking an advisor for graduate work on, of all things, the nature of brain functioning. This allows Ursu to mine a scientific angle to memory and its role in life, but it’s not an especially challenging presentation. Professor Ray, after breaking down over the memory of his dead wife, trots out some chestnuts about flawed memories and our notion of our pasts, while Susannah comes to realize her essential unhappiness with Todd. With Madeline, an elderly author of novels, Susannah works through some of her own life issues and partakes of Madeline’s time-worn wisdom to edifying effect. Sophie, Ray’s young daughter, is perhaps the most interesting character here. As a girl too young to have abundant memories of her own, her sturdy handling of the crises around her belies the fact that, as she puts it, “I’m just little.”
A credible first attempt. If Ursu’s narrative device is poorly chosen, she nevertheless executes the project with facility and glimpses of real feeling for her characters in their struggles with avalanches of recollection.