A Summer Read: The Memento

It's summer time again, and we're all looking for something satisfying to read. I have just the book for you: The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin.

The Memento was a great accompaniment to my trip to beautiful Nova Scotia last summer.  As some of you know, I'm a big fan of Conlin's work, and if you enjoy this then I suggest you read her first novel Heave, one of my all-time favourites, especially if you love the recklessness of youth (with an explanation, of course).

Christy Ann was kind enough to answer three of my questions about The Memento. Here's part of our conversation (my question is in bold):

HL: The Memento is your second adult novel since your bestseller Heave (for my review, scroll to the bottom of this page). Although both are set in rural Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy, they are very different novels. Heave moves pretty fast, while Memento is more of a slow burn, an old-time novel with plenty of twists and turns, some elements of a ghost story and a suspense novel, but I wouldn’t put it in either category.

At the centre is Fancy Mosher. The reader meets Fancy on her birthday at school, just before summer vacation. The 12-year-old is going to work in service with her friend Art at Petal’s End, a large estate owned by the wealthy Parkers. As a reader, Fancy had all my sympathies. Marilyn arrives unexpectedly at the school in a lamentable state:

“… the rusty door flies open and out she lunges. She’s done up for the weather in a tight summer dress with a black bra hanging out, and she comes strutting over in her high heels with long hair piled fantastically high, dark Mosher eyes all lined, big long lashes, red lips, a line of sunset cutting through her cheeks. Fifty-seven years old. Seeing her from a distance, it does seem that time screeched to a stop for her.”

We caught an earlier glimpse of the Moshers in Heave. I remember a conversation with you a few years ago on social media about your next book, and you said it would centre on Fancy Mosher and the island. That wild island with its crashing waves and ragged cliffs certainly figures prominently in this story. I wanted to know about the genesis of this book. How did it all come together?

Christy Ann Conlin: Ah, yes, the island.  I grew up in a region (and a family) steeped in storytelling, where there are stories for the unexplainable, stories associated with houses, places, events, and even objects. My family has always had a fascination for historic buildings and antiques, and the stories they contain.  And we grew up looking out over the legendary Bay of Fundy at a mysterious island which would loom out of the fog, and appear to move on hot summer days, when the bay was as still and shiny as a mirror, and it was impossible to see where the sky began and water ended. There is no doubt that my creative landscape has been shaped by all of this.

And yes, The Memento is a book which defies categorization, ha ha. It reads like a historical novel and yet it is not. It is both coming of age story, and a life reckoning story. And it has elements of magic realism.  There were a number of factors which drove the creation of the book. First, it was totally character driven, by Fancy Mosher, who appeared in Heave as a minor character. She fascinated me, the youngest of twelve children, growing up in a poor family immersed in an old world traditional culture which persisted in modern times. There is a scene in Heave where Fancy tells a ghost story that takes place out in the bay on a mysterious island. It was that moment, when I was writing the scene, where I realized Fancy Mosher had a secret. Despite her poverty and tumultuous childhood, she had such humour and insight, and an uncanny ability to see the truth.

The other driving element behind the genesis of the book was working stylistically to create a world, structure and story which embraced the stages of life and memory. And with regards to memory, the actual development and life of memory: how we create memory when we are young, and how memory changes form, and takes on intensity as we age. And of course, the distortion created in memory with the passage of time, and with the onset of dementia. It’s very much a story of personal and community history, shared memory colliding with personal memory. And herein arises the element of haunting, when unresolved moments and incidents from the past refuse to fade away, and begin to follow us, trailing behind and demanding acknowledgement and resolution, the past shaping the present, the beginning reaching forward and wrapping its hands around the end…

HL: The Moshers' and the Parkers' lives are intertwined, the extent of which is unknown until the very end. Fancy is at the bottom of the pecking order while she works in service at Petal’s End. She is the recipient of some stinging comments and hurtful actions by both other staff and some of the Parkers. In many ways, she cannot escape the actions of her mother, Marilyn. Yet, Fancy assumes her rung on the social ladder, possibly because she has no choice.

I found your portrayal of class differences in The Memento both subtle and very realistic. I was wondering where you found your source(s) of inspiration for these class differences?

Christy Ann: Both class and gender restrictions/expectations are an invincible power in limiting, restricting, and shaping a female life. Even when you want to flee the abuse, take shelter and find something new, you often find yourself in a labyrinth which just leads you back to where you began.
My early introduction to clearly delineated class society and was from reading novels, from English authors such as Jane Austen, the Brontes and EM Forster to the society novels of Edith Wharton and the short fiction of Katherine Mansfield. And later watching DVDs of Upstairs Downstairs.
And of course my mother took me to visit the grand old Nova Scotia estate museums of Mount Uniacke and Prescott House and Haliburton House. In those museums, we could see where the servants lived, and just how much work was involved to keep the homes running. And of course, back then, without transportation, servants were essentially trapped on the estates.

Fancy is born into a working poor reality, with absolute expectations of how her life will unfold. Her family’s past is considered her past. She inherits a low social standing and she also inherits a macabre family ability. 

Although she lives in modern times, she’s still bound by living rurally and poverty. The Memento looks at what we are born into and our response to this. It takes a very strong person to question and ultimately overcome a prescribed role.

And it’s not just class, but gender. Fancy has very few opportunities not just because she’s poor, but because she’s a poor female. Poor women have historically had to work, and often in the same jobs that their mothers have worked in. Fancy is encircled by her socioeconomic status, her gender, and her family history. Those who love and care for her have such limited resources that they really can’t provide her with any sort of experiences or opportunities which would allow Fancy to leave. In some ways, this is a dark twist on Mansfield Park. And Fancy, like Fanny, doesn’t want what is on offer to her. Fancy’s life is pre-ordained in many ways, because of her gift, the family memento as they call it. She manages to subvert this preordination.

Jenny Parker, the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Parker family, is also bound by severe class and gender expectations. She is disabled, has no charisma, and is deformed and unattractive. She’s a throw away person in society. And yet Jenny also subverts the rules and expectations placed on her in a most unexpected way. Pomeline, Jenny’s older, beautiful and privileged sister, is not so lucky. The expectations on her are her undoing. 

I grew up in a very rural and economically depressed area. It was also very racist and sexist, very traditional, and segregated. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in North America was, obviously, very different from living on an English country estate either as a lady or a ladysmaid, or a scullerymaid, as I no doubt would have been, ha ha.

But there is an invisible class system at play here, one I only fully began to comprehend when I was in high school. It was the opportunities which were available to teens of means, and the lack of opportunities to those without, which really create such divide. Also, the opportunities for a girl were so much more limited. There was a lot of pressure to do a “pink collar” job – to be a nurse or a teacher or be a secretary, to work with children.

We didn’t have a lot and there were hard times as a result. And living rurally means you need parents who can drive you all over creation for enrichment and extracurricular activities, things such as sports, and the arts and dance programs. And when you don’t have a lot, you get a part-time job, if you actually have a way of getting to the job. This is always an issue when you live rurally. It’s too far to bike or walk. I remember being so envious of friends who lived in towns, or who got cars when they were sixteen. When you’re little, you play in the woods and on the beach, and the entire world exists there. It’s when you get a bit older that you crave more of a sense of community, the society of like-minded peers.

I also did have a few domestic jobs working for some very wealthy people, both in Canada and in Europe, looking after children, pets, and working as a cleaning lady. It was peeking into an entirely different reality. It was amazing how much drama unfolded in front of “the help.” And how much my employers would confide in me, in private. Even with that much privilege and with so many resources, there was a lot of loneliness, and pressure to conform and carry out the duties and expectations which came with a particularly high station in life.

HL: Your next project, I gather, will be quite different. Rather than the classic slow-burn type of read, this next book will have more suspense. What can you tell us about your upcoming project?

Christy Ann: The book I’m working on now is very distilled. It’s the recollection of that one summer in Nova Scotia, of a friendship between two thirteen year old girls, the relationship between fathers and daughters, of the secrets kept hidden within families, and of the explosive collision course between the world of adults and the world of children — and what happens particularly when children step into the dark world of adults, a world that no child should witness, much less experience. It’s a literary mystery!

HL: Can't wait. Could you maybe send me the galley?...



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