17 February 2014

Book Review: The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman

"The name of your first-born. The face of your lover. Your age. Your address...

What would happen if your memory of these began to fade?

Is it possible to rebuild your life? Raise a family? Fall in love again?

When Claire starts to write her Memory Book, she already knows that this scrapbook of mementoes will soon be all her daughters and husband have of her. But how can she hold on to the past when her future is slipping through her fingers...?"

Rating: 5/5

You can buy The Memory Book as a hardback or an eBook now.

Rowan Coleman has quickly become of my favourite authors, both with her amazingly emotional books and her more seasonal offerings under her pen name of Scarlett Bailey. Her past few books, Dearest Rose and Lessons in Laughing Out Loud have been amazing books, full of serious stories handled so sensitively by Rowan, and they have been books that have stayed with me. I can safely say that The Memory Book is the most emotional of the lot, a real tear-jerker of a read, cleverly interspersed with moments to make you smile and that make you grateful for the life you have now. Here's why The Memory Book is already one of my top reads of 2014.

Claire thought she had it all. She's married to her gorgeous husband Greg, mum to her lovely daughters Caitlin and Esther, and she loves her job as a teacher. But Claire's world is blown apart when she gets a devastating diagnosis that threaten to ruin everything she has built up over the years - Claire has early onset Alzheimer's.  She starts to log her own memories in her new memory book, everything from raising Caitlin as a single parent, to meeting her husband and having their baby girl Esther together. Claire's family struggle as the woman they know and love starts to drift away from them, through no fault of her own. Will Claire be able to hang on to even a bit of her past when she's so unsure about her future?

As you can tell from the synopsis, this isn't going to be an easy read, and it really wasn't. It was hard-hitting in places, had me in tears because of what poor Claire was going through and the injustice of the disease, robbing someone of their memories, their mental faculties and leaving those left behind feeling devastated and bereft - the person is still there in body, but what makes them 'them' has disappeared forever. It was a book about Claire dealing with her disease, how her decline affects her family but ultimately about her memories of a life full of happiness and love. It's a very moving and emotional story, and Coleman handles it so beautifully, her writing is a joy to read and I was completely consumed by the novel.

The book is told through several narratives. There's Claire, of course, who is our main narrator. She's struggling with her Alzheimer's as we meet her in the book, and it does make for some hard, yet at times amusing reading. Claire can't remember the names of simple things like her watch, where she lives or even how to perform basic household tasks anymore, so is reliant on her mum, eldest daughter and her husband to help her get by, but she doesn't like being reliant on other people. Claire sees it as giving up her freedoms, and is struggling to get by in her new life. It's Claire's brain letting her down - she still wants to be herself but doesn't realise her new limitations, and subjects her family to some frightening realisations when Claire decides to take matters into her own hands.

But it's the story of her family which is all the more heart-breaking. There's eldest daughter Caitlin's narrative, going through her own personal strife as well as dealing with losing her mum a bit more every day, and trying to take on the caring responsibility too. She's got a mature head on her shoulders, but I did feel incredibly sorry for her and what she was going through, Coleman makes her a very sympathetic character, and one you just want to hug. Claire's mum is also present in the book, angry at what is happening to her daughter, but equally devastated as this is the way she lost her beloved husband too. Claire's mum knows what is coming, and I think that makes it all the more difficult and devastating to deal with. But it was Greg's story which frequently moved me to tears. It was Coleman's observations which were utterly devastating, one line about extra pages in Claire's memory book hit me hard and moved to tears, it was just so poignant.

I really enjoyed the stories within the memory book that Claire and her family contribute too. It gives us a bit of a look into Claire's life before the Alzheimer's took hold, and it showed us she has had a happy and fulfilled life. The memories shared by her mother and daughter complete the story, and made me smile. We can see the difference between Claire then and now, although I did find Claire's reasoning and rationalising her behaviour in her current state amusing at times, she almost reverts to a childlike mindset, and it is a little light relief throughout the book - I was constantly thinking of her poor family left behind picking up the pieces of madcap ideas though. This is one of the best books I have ever read. Yes, it's emotional and devastating, but it's a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the final page. It's an honest account of how living and dealing with Alzheimer's affects everyone - yet it uplifted me because it showed me love can transgress even the most awful of scenario's. The ending made my heart soar, my eyes cry and me feel so utterly moved. Heart-breaking, and simply brilliant. Thank you, Rowan Coleman.

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