Book Review: The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon

The Memory Artist is not a book to read in fits and spurts. It’s not a book to read with a deal of background noise. With any background noise to be fair. It is a book to be read when time is of no consequence, when there are no demands for attention from others. When you can sit quietly, in your favourite chair, in your favourite setting, with a big pot of tea, ready to take it all in.

It’s not an easy book. At least, I didn’t find it an easy book, partly because I’m not all that familiar with the historical setting. The main character, Pasha, was born in Moscow during Brezhnev’s repressive rule. His mother and father were dissidents and he grew up around those suffering under Stalinist violence.

Later, in 1999, we follow Pasha as he lives alone in St Petersburg. He struggles with his desires to become a writer and the lack of evidence to suggest he might one day make money doing so. When his mother dies, he returns to Moscow and tries to capture the memories of those who lived through those horrible years that haunt him and those around him.

The book hops from time to time in a way which makes it difficult to follow if you don’t have a precious hour or two to sit and read it in big chunks. It doesn’t follow traditional narrative convention, crisscrossing between story lines and characters. The Russian words, names and surnames slip and slide through your brain until you get a grip on the story – then before you know it it has shifted again. Maybe that was just me though, I was struggling to get that time to just sit and concentrate.

But The Memory Artist is a beautiful statement on how the past leaves an imprint on the pages of the present. ‘Though memories don’t always have words, they usually have a place,” Brabon writes. Like that feeling you get when you walk into an old house, or return to your childhood school. When you look at an old photograph, when you try to understand your family history. Like somehow it’s all connected.

I might have put The Memory Tree down if I hadn’t been entirely caught in the beautiful imagery dotted through the pages. The stark profundity of it:

I thought of my father and all the silent spaces in our apartment where he still lived, despite his death, where every day he still breathed.

Where small currents pulled or sandbanks rose up, the watery sheet looked like a blanket unfolded, a bed unmade.

 The dusty roads seemed no longer useful, just lonely, pale snakes twisting through a ghost town that held only the subtlest evidence of past occupants.

 Perhaps we return to words because a human needs their experience reflected somewhere. We return to art because it reflects our incompleteness; true art is full of gaps, and so we need it again and again, because that is how we live and remember.

Brabon writes so poignantly about death, about memory, about life, that you roll along with her, waiting to see how the threads will be caught up and yet knowing they just won’t be. Couldn’t be really. She writes about the human condition and the suffering inflicted on generations after repression. What lingers on despite a relaxing, an opening of the boundaries of such stringent rule. A kind of generational palimpsest which leaves loneliness and loss in its wake.

Maybe when we are pushed to the limits, art and death are so similar. Maybe art, like people, cannot escape the conditions around it. To consider whether my father’s death was art might have been the ultimate unspeakable question, born of a system that crushed all logic… Perhaps they were all artists of memory.

I’d like to think we all carry with us a little piece of those we have lost. The Memory Artist makes that clear, and that it can impact us so much more than we realise. A kind of quiet, collective grief. Read this, especially if you are familiar with the context, if you love beautiful imagery, if you like books that make you ponder.



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