January 22, 2008

Book Review: The Story of Forgetting

Once again, my favorite web site LibraryThing connected me with an early reviewer copy of a book. This time, it’s The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block.

This is a beautifully written novel that, if it doesn’t exactly defy convention, at least smooshes together at least two genres into a single novel.

One genre is the Faulknerian tale of family passions and deep secrets that span decades. This is the tale of Abel, an aptly named hunchback living on a Texas farm. Block helpfully points out at the end of the first chapter how Abel’s story is a retelling of the Fall. Over the course of the novel, we see Abel’s slow-motion expulsion from Eden.

The tale of Seth is a coming-of-age story. Seth is an awkward 15-year-old (redundant?) dealing with the problems that all 15-year-olds deal with in all coming-of-age novels: sex, annoying parents, and how to fit in. Oh, and a mother with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which Seth stands a 50/50 chance of inheriting. Did I forget to mention that?

Alzheimer’s is really the central character of the novel, and I must say Block handles this part of the story wonderfully. When I was an awkward 15-year-old, I watched my best friend’s dad slowly disappear into dementia. Watching this disease work on its victim and family is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. Like a science-fiction plot device, Alzheimer’s makes the victim live his life backwards, with each new day erasing the most recent memories. My friend’s dad was at the forgot-how-to-feed-himself stage when I stayed with them for three weeks at their lake house in New Hampshire. Even though my friend and I were at the peak of hormonal, irresponsible teenagedom, we were considerably more mature and capable than his dad. I remember the terror we felt when we returned to the lake house one day, couldn’t find his dad at first, and then saw him drifting 20 feet offshore in the aluminum motorboat, vainly trying to start it. It was the last time we left him unsupervised. I still shudder to think of the damage he could have done to himself or to someone else on the lake if he managed to get the metal blades spinning. And this is the man who, just a year earlier, had taken me out fishing in that same boat.

Alzheimer’s is harder on the family than on the victim. But I know from watching my friend that most families find a way to cope. The Story of Forgetting does a great job showing the impact of the disease on people and on families and how different people cope.

Of the two stories smooshed together, I liked Abel’s story the best. It’s got passion, deception, pure love, and bittersweet redemption. Seth’s story is a close second. While I could clearly identify with a nerdy, self-conscious teenager, there were elements of this story that were just a little looser and less effective.

One of the things I admired most about this novel is the writing. Block can create some great, original sentences and images. He can jump back and forth effortlessly between storytelling styles. So I’m completely in awe knowing that he’s just 24 years old. We’ll hopefully have many more decades of similarly well-written and sensitive stories to enjoy from him.

Written by Brian Dewey.

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