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A Fall Read: The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin

It's fall and we all want to curl up with 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. My family has always had a fascination for historic buildings and antiques.  And we grew up looking out over the legendary Bay of Fundy at a mysterious island which would loom out of the fog. There is no doubt that my creative landscape has been shaped by 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 tradition 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 realized Fancy Mosher had a secret. Despite her poverty and tumultuous childhood, she had humour and insight, and an uncanny ability to see the truth.

The other driving element behind the development of the book was working stylistically to create a world, structure and story which embraced the stages of life and memory.  How we create memory when we are young, and how memory changes  and takes on an 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 an individual and a collective history, a 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 invincible powers restricting and shaping female lives. 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 delineated class society was from reading novels, from English authors like 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, 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. 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 poverty and living rurally. The Memento looks at what we are born into and our response to it. 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.
Jenny Parker, the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Parker family, is also bound by severe class and gender expectations. She is disabled, unattractive and lacks charisma. 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, 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 lady's maid, or a scullery maid, as I no doubt would have been.

But there is an invisible class system at play here, one I only fully began to comprehend when I was in high school.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 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.

I also did have a few domestic jobs working for some very wealthy people, both in Canada and in Europe. It was amazing how much drama unfolded in front of “the help.”

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 a literary mystery! It explores the friendship, estrangement and reunion between two women who first met many summers ago in a seaside town and uncovered a horrible truth behind a forgotten family death which binds them together in a web of betrayal, beauty and violence.

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

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NYC Flash Fiction: Tree Warriors

In the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, I was given the genre action/adventure, and since the vast majority of stories of this kind feature men, I opted for teenage girls. I had to use a helipad as a location and a fishing net as the object that had to appear in the story. Anyway, I came up with the following 1,000-word action story.

Tree Warriors

It’s early evening and 16-year-old Liza sees nothing from the look-out atop the hospital helipad, part of the only block left standing after the hospital was bombed. “Nothing will happen,” she tells herself, but deep down she wants something to happen to prove herself. Four girls, ranging in ages from 12 to 15, are standing on branches in the dense forest below, watching the entrance of the tunnel to their home, where seven younger girls are sleeping. Liza drags her hand through her black brush-cut pondering all her responsibilities. She became the new head of security after Luna, her predecessor, was killed by a sniper. The four eldest girls are out foraging for food and trading valuables at the night market.

Liza sees movement in the west field. “It might be nothing,” she says to herself. She reaches into the pocket of her hospital blanket cape and pulls out her night-vision goggles. Three men are coming. Long black points bob behind their shoulders—weapons. One man is carrying a bulky sack over his shoulder. Now’s her test. She reaches down and shakes a large leafy branch to warn the other four sentries of intruders.

She quickly rappels down the hospital wall to a thick branch and onto the network of tree branch walkways that the girls have built to see passersby below, usually government soldiers or religious fanatics, both equally as dangerous. Liza knows that the fate of girls is bleak in this holy war. The lucky ones are traded as child brides, while the less fortunate are trafficked.

Liza’s heart pounds as she moves through the trees to the other sentries, telling herself to follow instructions. The thick callouses on her feet help her to approach swiftly and silently. Within a few minutes she establishes eye-contact with the four sentries, their eyes wide with fear. Liza flashes three fingers to show them the number of intruders. She instructs them to pull out their blowguns and tranquilizing darts, made from clay, bits of glass and ground tranquilizers that were found amid the hospital rubble. One of the older girls had killed a man who had attacked her on her way home through the woods with just five quick tranquillizer darts. His silent death provided the group with some cash and a bowie knife, which Liza now carries on her belt.

According to instructions, passersby were not to be attacked unless they discovered the tunnel to their home. Liza waits, her heart in her throat, but ready. She hears the men’s footsteps approaching. She points to the direction they’re coming in. She motions to the other girls to step around so that when the men walk through, the girls will see their backs.

Liza brings her index finger to her lips, an order for silence and stillness. She freezes as the adrenaline pumps in her veins. The men’s voices are deep like a rumbling car. The one carrying the sack is the last one through. He calls to the others, “Hey, I need to rest,” placing the sack on the ground at the foot of the tree below Liza. A high-pitched cry comes from the sack. The man whacks it with his large hand. “Shut it or I’ll shoot you, bitch,” he says. The other two men plod back. A warm pungent smell of filth and perspiration permeates the cool night air.

One man steps close to the tunnel entrance and pulls out a camouflage branch covering the tunnel door. “Hey, what’s this?” he says leaning down. “Check this out,” he says to the others. He bends over and pulls branches out of the cast net used to keep them in place and conceal the tunnel door. “You’re right,” says the other kneeling down and pulling out branches. “Man, I think we’ve found a cache.”

Liza looks around at the sentries and puts three darts in her mouth and points to the man sitting below them, next to the sack. She aims for the back of his neck, and the other girls follow suit. He yelps in pain as he is bombarded with tranquilizer darts. By the time one of his buddies looks over, he is slumped over. “Hey, what’s up with him,” he says stepping over to see his unconscious friend. As he steps out, he hears a rustle in the trees above. He looks up and his eyes meet Liza’s. She blows another fast round of darts. The other girls fire as the man tries to shield his face with his bare arm. He collapses like a folding chair.

Liza spits before she leaps to the ground and hides behind a tree. She’s feeling slightly woozy from swallowing some of the tranquilizer. Bits of glass have cut the inside of her mouth. There’s a metallic taste of blood mixed with fear. She needs to kill the last man standing.

The third man steps away from the tunnel entrance to see what is going on. He looks up and sees the four sentries with their blowguns poised to fire. In a split second, he pulls his rifle into position and aims. Liza takes one, two, three steps, climbs the last man’s back and slits his throat with her bowie knife before he can shoot. He staggers and falls to the ground.

Two hours later when the eldest girls return with food and supplies, Liza is back at the helipad look-out, pacing and replaying the events of the evening over in her mind. The four exhausted sentries are still at their posts. Inside the tunnel, seven-year-old Aida, the little girl being carried in the sack, is curled up asleep with the others after she was reassured that the big, bad men were all dead. Their bodies were dragged to the dump along with the other recent dart fatality. But their belongings, two knives and three rifles, will keep all the girls safe for awhile.

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