Memory’s Wake

In Memory’s Wake, Derek Owens lovingly revisits his mother’s troubled childhood to offer a hopeful and moving meditation on the relationship between the past and the present. Early in the book, Owens sets the stage for this meditation by explaining that his mother’s memories of the events in question lay dormant for years until the gradual departure of her grown children allowed for their return. Soon the author is traveling in his own mind back to the house where his mother suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandmother to interrogate his own memories and also to ask what it really means to remember.

Reconstructing his mother’s flight from the abuse in question, Owens overlays the young child’s journey with a narrative recounting the violent extirpation of the Iriquois who once populated the same lands his mother wandered as a child. The effect is both chilling and intriguing. We are a species, this telling juxtaposition suggests, that is capable of great cruelty. At the same time, however, our resilience knows no bounds. Still later, similar historical parallels drive home the point that our ghosts — or at least our history — will always be with us, but the fact that his mother did not perpetuate the cycle of abuse with her own children bears silent testimony to our collective ability to change for the better. Haunted though we may be by the past, the narrative insists, the present is what we make of it.

Stylistically, Memory’s Wake offers a highly engaging blend of history and personal narrative that suggests the two are less discrete than we might normally imagine. Throughout, Owens displays a talent for homespun yet telling imagery, as when he describes an average dinner with his grandmother: “ashy potatoes, smears of applesauce. peas grainy from freezer burn. slices of pot roast pearly gray, fibers on the ends sticking out like frayed wires. in the middle of the table a gravy boat, mud colored skin, thick as a bathmat. if you dropped a pea on top it would have sat there, tiny green planet.”

Heartbreaking and hopeful, Memory’s Wake will appeal to anyone interested in exploring the borderlands between history and personal narrative and will also make for an excellent text in any creative nonfiction course.

The Twoweeks

On the surface, The Twoweeks by Larry Duberstein is a masterful story about extramarital relations and the complications inherent therein. Read a little closer, and it’s about the eternal tension between time and memory.

The plot of the novel revolves a pair of more-or-less happily married young lovers who don’t happen to be happily married to each other. To do away with any potential sexual attraction they might have for each other, the pair decide to embark on a two-week fling — hence the title of the novel. Yet what starts off as a simple fling (as if such a thing could ever exist) turns out to be anything but simple.

While Duberstein’s treatment of the emotional peril inherent in the novel’s basic conceit is both nuanced and intensely human, his framing of the tale lends texture to the narrative. As readers, we learn about the events thirty years on as the key players argue over seemingly petty details and reminisce almost antagonistically over the time they shared. The effect of this layering is to raise many issues about the tangled relationships between time, memory, and identity. And, like all good art, The Twoweeks poses more questions than it answers.

Throughout the novel, Duberstein’s talents as a prose stylist are in full bloom, and the author emerges throughout as not just a master of well-wrought phrases and descriptions, but as a true student of the human condition. Consider, for example, his take on what he terms “the eternal spousal question”: To the eternal spousal question (“What’s wrong?”) the eternal answer (“Nothing”) can never be rendered convincingly… If the question must be asked, then “Nothing” is simply not among the plausible answers.

Truer words have never been spoken!

All told, The Twoweeks is the work of a master wordsmith whose intimate knowledge of the human heart is rivaled only by his perspicacity, a writer who is comfortable dealing with uncertainties and who understands that a good question can sometimes be worth a thousand answers.

Review by Marc Schuster

Time Among the Dead

In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This truism, however, belies a fact that anyone who’s spent any amount of time with an apparently “happy” family knows: each happy family is unhappy in its own way as well. Such is the case in Thomas Reyfiel’s Time Among the Dead. Evoking the Victorian sensibilities of works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the yearning for a better age inherent in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Rayfiel’s latest novel bears nostalgic witness to the passing of the age of aristocracy and the social mores that went along with it. What’s more, as the values and traditions of one era give way to the newfangled ways of the next, the uneasy relationship between the past and the ever-changing present comes into sharp and sometimes painful focus, only to reveal that even the past, or at least our recollection of it, is as fluid as any chain of events unfolding in the present.

At first glance, Time Among the Dead appears to be about the tension between the narrator and his shiftless grandson, Seabold. Under the pretense of tending to his ailing grandfather, Seabold arrives at the family estate to live the life of a country gentleman. The only problem with his plan is that the estate is nearly bankrupt, and Seabold has no real prospects for either love or employment — until, that is, he meets the daughter of a local peasant. Though the peasant’s financial footing is firm, he has no title, and so the narrator, William, the Seventh Earl of Upton, has no choice but to put an end to his grandson’s romance. William’s machinations, however, are complicated not only by the sudden appearance of Seabold’s closest school chum, but also by memories of a former life that William has heretofore painted over with the romantic sheen of nostalgia. The past, it turns out, is not what William has been making of it, and in many ways helps to explain his troubles in the present.

One thing that makes Time Among the Dead an especially intriguing read is the narrator’s prescience with respect to the audience who may or may not stumble upon his journals in the future. His desire throughout the proceedings is to set the record straight for posterity, whoever that posterity may include. Yet even as the narrator struggles to recall his past and record the present accurately, he is plagued with doubt and uncertainty, for the fragility of the mind coupled with the complexity of the heart precludes objectivity. Our knowledge of the past and present, Time Among the Dead insists, is always compromised, so the best we can do is work with the information we have and move tentatively toward the future.

A truly enchanting novel, Time Among the Dead offers readers a glimpse into a bygone era and suggests that what really sets humanity apart as a species is our peculiar talent for divining meaning in the present from the ceaseless tension between the past and the future.