Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick
I’ve been a fan of Sedgwick for years – He has primarily written for children and YA audiences until fairly recently. However, reading his YA novels as an adult has never disappointed, (see here, here, here, here and here – Yes, I am a big fan!). Now he is also writing for a different audience – his recent adult non-fiction monograph on Snow is just delightful (see here). Mister Memory is his second adult novel, and he brings his customary storytelling excellence, attention to detail and language to this book too, but its adult themes make it all grown-up.
The setting is fin de siècle Paris in 1899 and the atmosphere is palpable as the seedier side of the city comes to life in a novel full of Grand Guignol elements:
Paris at that time can be described as a fairy tale; assuming it’s understood that fairy tales are brutish, dark and violent. (p5)
And there is one more ingredient to be found in fairy tales. It is in fact the very thing that truly defines the form: magic. Without magic, a fairy tale is only a folk tale, and that, after all, is no more than a mundane story told between friends and neighbours.
Of genuine magic in Paris, there was probably not to be found. Of illusion, there was plenty. … Don’t look at that, look at this! I will show you what I want you to see… You know the darkness is there, but why look at that? When I can give you what you want … pleasure. (p7)
The plot concerns a man called Marcel Desprès who has a cabaret act as Monsieur Mémoire – for Marcel has a true and rare photographic memory. We discover early in the book that Marcel is unwittingly (we think) involved in a serious crime in which a man is murdered. After the event, he is overcome by images and becomes almost catatonic, thus he ends up incarcerated in an asylum rather than prison, where Dr Morel is increasingly desperate to get Marcel to respond:
If his body is still, his mind is not, but Morel cannot see Marcel’s mind. This is what frustrates him so greatly; he wishes he could look at the damn man’s thoughts directly and not have to pole and tease at them from outside, through the medium of Marcel’s body – of his tongue. He wants to be able to see the workings of the clock, not merely wonder that the hands always tell the correct time. But he cannot. The only way he can learn about Marcel’s memory is at second hand, remotely, having to rely on the patient’s ability to think, to speak, to interpret, to tell the truth. Why, to think he claims not to be able to lie! (p99/100)
The murder is investigated by a young policeman, Inspector Petit who is keen to make a name for himself in the Sûreté after five years in the army. He has confirmed the basic facts of the crime:
Marcel had arrived home, found his wife and an American from the cabaret where they all worked hard at it, and shot Ondine there and then. The gardiens had found Marcel in the passage, kneeling on the cobbles, frozen to the spot. From the remorse, a dim-witted blanchisseuse had told him, with a knowing look. (p45)
However, everyone tells a slightly different story, and Petit wonders where the gun appeared from too. He will leave no stone unturned to make sure that Marcel “gets the justice he deserves.” Did Marcel murder his wife? Of course I can’t tell you, but there are plenty of twists and turns before we find out what really happened.
The three main characters, Marcel, Dr Morel and Inspector Petit are all fascinating in themselves; I particularly liked the doctor and his developing relationship with his patient. However, it is decadent Paris itself together with the novel’s supporting cast who provide the colour to make the story jump off the page: the whores, drunkards, actresses and those ‘blanchisseuses‘ – the washer-women, plus the other policemen including Petit’s Maigret-like boss, Chef Cavard – all bring the novel to life.
The cabarets of Pigalle and Montmartre are centre-stage in this novel, and although not mentioned in Sedgwick’s novel, the famous Théâtre du Grand-Guignol putting on its shocking (but naturalistic, so Wikipedia tells me) horror shows from 1897 is a big influence, and its name came to mean macabre dramas such as this. To highlight this, Sedgwick adopts a slightly theatrical voice to narrate the story – imagine a French Vincent Price mixed with a hint of Lemony Snicket and you’ll get the idea. I loved it. (9/10)
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Source: Review copy via Amazon Vine
Marcus Sedgwick, Mister Memory (Mulholland Books, Jul 2016) Hardback, 336 pages.