I’m delighted to be celebrating and cheering on The Memory Thieves today. Darren Simpson changed the landscape of children’s literature with his stunning debut Scavengers, and his second book The Memory Thieves incredibly, may be even better.
It must be the human condition to wish we could forget something, an argument, a missed opportunity, embarrassing mistake, cruel playground jibes, physical trauma, emotional abuse or worse. To be able to package it up and send it ‘away’ living life without the shadows of it stealing our sunshine.
But even wisdom is confused about the value of memory because memory isn’t a list of things or a picture that you can throw away, because like with our rubbish bins there isn’t really a place called ‘away’…. just Elsewhere.
Cyan lives at the Elsewhere Sanctuary and cannot remember his life before, he has no idea how long it has been because at Elsewhere everything from rooms to clothes to mealtimes is changed frequently but irregularly to create a constant sense of disorientation and discourage memory.
Content with this life until he finds a strange message scratched into bone and the arrival of a new and particularly reluctant girl Jonquil, Cyan slowly uncovers to his horror the truth behind the sanctuary, and what he was so desperate to forget that turned his black hair white.
best to deceive the memory thieves
between green and red, fight don’t forget,
The Memory Thieves is stunning and cinematic from start to finish in both Darren’s writing style and the influences evoked suggest it would be incredible adapted to screen. There are some frames of reference that spring to mind when you are reading; Mnemonic and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for two more obvious ones, but my mind was drawn back to the mysterious school with forbidden spaces in Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz, the darkness beneath the supposedly harmonious circumstances in The Island, the claustrophobic sense of dread like in Shutter Island and The Prisoner, except unlike in the latter the children are prisoners of their own making and minds not the strange white balloon!
With these resonant associations, reading The Memory Thieves quickly feels like the kind of novel that has been in minds and hearts and hands for ever whilst is startlingly new and bold; Darren has an incredible ability to make you slip quickly and comfortably into his world as if there is no other place but this despite the jarring disorientation of the lives his characters lead in their pursuit of spotless minds.
But there is a hauntingly nagging sense of dread beneath the smiles and freetime to explore. A disquieting upset. Something undulating in the dark recesses of the mind that something isn’t quite right at Elsewhere, that intentions are not as altruistic as it seems. This gnawing sense of discomfort builds to a fever pitch across the novel, Darren plays with us, our skins prickling as Cyan circles ever closer to the truth and the depiction of the villains is just utter bone-chilling perfection.
It was strange though. He felt like there was something more, something fuzzy and vague, niggling at the fringes of his memory.
At its core Darren is talking to readers about the role of memory and emotional resilience and how these intertwine along with our experience and surroundings.
Memory is an experience, and to blot out the words, name or images of our experiences betrays the deeper emotional connections that are vacuum-packed into teeny tiny boxes ready to explode all over our lives should we rap our knuckles against its surface. I have complex PTSD, I know. And this book deals with the memory of trauma. You can block the words, places and people that define your trauma but the colours, smells, and most powerfully the emotion remain, and will be there until you confront them, call them by their name and thus you can begin to heal.
The theory that is in comparison presented to the participants of the Elsewhere Sanctuary is that they can, with medication, ECT and constant temporal and place disorientation, erase past trauma and achieve unencumbered bliss, the price? Well for one, you must surrender your past and never speak of who you were before.
‘I’m finding it harder and harder,’ he finally said, ‘to ignore the fact I’m feeling… bothered’
What’s particularly interesting is how Darren patiently reveals to the reader that much as we want to forget, memory is more than just a list of events and facts like a timeline with pictures in our heads. Instead, Simpson reminds the reader that memory is a fully immersive experience much like the same way people have a uncontrollable reaction to a scent perhaps coconut or freshly mown grass, the ghost of perfume in a lift, or broken mints in a coat pocket flooding us with memories and associations, I myself experienced this recently smelling a scented lip balm of my daughter’s sent me reeling straight back to being ten again daubing on a coveted sugar plum tint.
You can rub out the pencil notes of the event, time, place but you can’t scrub away the emotions and sensory experience that came with it or to be darker with trauma; you can wash and bleach the blood away but that special spray and blue light will reveal the iron truth underneath, and it is that truth that is part of who we are, whether we have the strength to rise or not.
Cyan’s journey to self empowerment and realisation of the value of memory, the value of acknowledging the pain that we survive is such a powerful and important one. Darren never diminishes or devalues the trauma itself nor does he suggest in a patronising way that suffering is ‘character building’. Instead Darren encourages us to allow ourselves accept the road that we have walked may not have been smooth and the struggles that we have stumbled upon, overcome or left us writhing in the dirt each rightly or wrongly contributed to who we are today, and we have the choice to frame it as the bad times chipping away at us, eroding our worth like a cliff falling to the pounding sea or, we can recognise these events are like the actions of a sculptor carving the truth within the block of marble, the marks that we have lived to tell the tale.
Truly, The Memory Thieves is an outstanding novel that will change readers, and hopefully give children the strength and hope to find resilience and growth, whatever their past, contemporary or (hope forbidding) future trauma may throw their way.
I hope you will take a look at the other stops on the blog tour this week for this incredible thought provoking book.
The Memory Thieves by Darren Simpson is published by Usborne