Archives for posts with tag: Memory

‘Incognito’ means having one’s true identity concealed. Nick Payne’s play very much questions the notion of identity itself.

There are three interwoven stories in Incognito. Two are set in the 1950s and are based on real events. One focuses on the pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and subsequently stole his brain. The other story from that era tells us about Henry, who underwent pioneering surgery for epilepsy that left him profoundly amnesic. The third story is a present day one, and focuses on Martha who is a clinical neuropsychologist.

Harvey decides to steal Einstein’s brain in an attempt to undertake research that might explain what genius is and ‘looks like’ at a neuroanatomical level. It soon becomes apparent that there was more to Einstein than his genius, and that as a father he was often strange and cruel. What does ‘knowing’ someone really mean?

Martha has a client who confabulates. He has amnesia and his brain compensates by making up stories:

‘A damaged brain can continue to make sense of the world even if the patient can’t.’

Who are we? What part does memory play in creating our identity and our sense of self? Incognito raises these and other questions, which are most likely unanswerable, yet still important to consider.

Martha also considers the potential benefits of amnesia:

‘Imagine if you could, if you could forget all the embarrassing things you’d ever done…if you could forget all that trauma and pain’

For me, Martha had the most insightful land thought provoking lines:

‘The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there is certainly no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped. The brain is a storytelling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.’

I am less fatalistic than Martha – ‘We are pointless. We’re a blip. A blip within a blip within an abyss.’ – yet I am also grateful to Nick Payne and Incognito for encouraging me to consider what it might, or might not, mean to be me.

The text for the play includes the following disclaimer:

‘Despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several

true stories, this play is a work of fiction.

But then isn’t everything.’


‘Everything’ may well include ‘everybody’…



Today is the first anniversary of my sister’s death. I am not so sure about formal remembrances and rituals. However, I do feel like sharing some of my thoughts from 2013, my first year without my sister.

Mostly, the past months have surprised me. Little has been how I might have predicted it, echoing the experience of Joan Didion following her husband’s death:

‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it’

The initial period was relatively easy to manoeuvre. I got on with my life as if on autopilot. I remember being grateful that I was alive, and resolutely determined to make the most of my own living. My sister’s death also reminded me of my mother’s grief when her mother and her sister died in relatively quick succession. I was a teenager at the time, the youngest of five children, and the only one still living at home. I was thus unrelentingly exposed to my mother’s ‘decline’, as sadness and doom enveloped her and those around her. I did not want a similar experience for my own teenage daughter, who was herself traumatised by her aunt’s death. Instead, I worked on negotiating a path where we could keep my sister’s loss a presence in our lives, but one that would not destroy us.

To some extent we managed this. However, how we respond to loss cannot be completely controlled and contained. When I have experienced loss previously in my life, I have noticed how delayed my personal response to the trauma of the experience can be. So it was on this occasion. As the acute distress around the dying period and the death itself eased, the loss that evolved from the death manifested itself acutely. Yet the clichés are also true. Life does go on, and passing time does facilitate a living with loss that is manageable. I have not experienced anger at any point. Regret, yes. Guilt, some. Mostly, my emotional volcanoes consist of random and unpredictable moments of acute pain, which are so cataclysmic that every time I feel they will overwhelm and destroy me. But of course they do not. Reassuringly or fatalistically, you continue getting on with your life in the ‘club of the left-over living’.

My sister is buried in another country. I am sad about this. Her graveside is a place I would like to spend time. Yet, for the memorial mass today, I chose not to attend. My other sisters did. The experience of loss has been different for all of us, and not one we have easily been able to share.

What has surprised me most of all, is how much I miss my sister. Living in different countries, we communicated infrequently, and spent time together just a few times a year. Yet, as time goes on, the fact that we will never have those times again fills me with a sadness that is as infinite as her loss.

My sister was older than I am, and so, until this past year, she had always been in my life.

I miss the fact of her, her living and energetic being. I miss how much she used (sometimes) to annoy me. I miss her loyalty and absolute support. I miss her reckless generosity.

I miss.


This is one of those films that you are still thinking about, days after the event.

An autobiographical work, where various members of Polley’s family speak to the camera, the film attempts to piece together the story of the director’s mother’s life, as well as her own origins.

The film opens with an extended quote from Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace:

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything about like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

Individually, we are all the sum total of a storied life and irrespective of the fact that the film focuses on one particular family and its story, there is much here that potentially holds resonance for all of us.

As such, the film has encouraged me to consider many things around the narrative form that our lives take.

As I have mentioned here before, I believe that we are born in the middle of someone else’s story. When exactly it becomes our own, when we can claim it as our own (and only ours?), I do not know. But I do know that I feel an increasing responsibility, and need, to reclaim my story, to shape it, and to write all headings for subsequent chapters.

Inevitably, (unanswerable) questions around ‘truth’ also arise. I am no longer sure that truth matters here. There is probably little that is true when we are dealing with the memories that inevitably shape our stories. Thus, truth as a end-goal feels like a self-defeating aspiration in this context.

Even if we are born in the middle of someone else’s story (and it follows that our stories too lead onto anothers), that feels ok. We can still take ownership, and reversion those bits where we have a starring role…


I really enjoyed Barry’s earlier novel The Secret Scripture, although I was a little taken aback by the final denouement, which felt a little contrived, and unnecessary. The book had been magical up to that point.

Nonetheless, I eagerly began On Canaan’s Side this week, and finished it within very few days. Barry’s prose is seductive and addictive, creating a narrative that you do not want to leave.

Similar to The Secret Scripture, On Canaan’s Side has an elderly Irish woman as the main protagonist. In both, she looks back and tells her story. There the similarities pretty much end, and I did not feel that Barry was regurgitating a trope.

Like Colm Toibin (particularly in Brooklyn), Barry writes so sympathetically and impressively from a female perspective.

On Canaan’s Side opens with:

‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.’

Lilly’s story is that of a life beset and consumed by tragedy, and there is little in terms of redemption or relief from sadness throughout. As such, it is very much an ‘Irish book’. We are good at tragedy, and On Canaan’s Side does feel authentic, from this, but not only this, perspective.

Barry writes beautifully, and there are very many sentences and phrases throughout that make you stop, and consider:

‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’

Tragedy begins early for Lilly, as she remembers events from almost 80 years earlier, when growing up in Ireland:

‘The grief at first sat in us, and then leaked out into the chairs, and at last into the very walls and sat in the mortar.’

The memories of those times, the almost palpable grief, never leave Lilly, shadowing her life throughout:

‘We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.’

I was intrigued by Lilly’s assessment of her doctor, Dr Earnshaw. This is a discussion for another day, perhaps:

‘But he is very austere, and depressed-looking, and he never smiles. You can have confidence in a man like that, though, in the manner of doctoring.’

Lilly leaves Ireland, settling in America, where she initially spends much time lost and alone ‘a prisoner in the open asylum of the world.’ Her best possession at that point, she reflects, was her youth, ‘but that of course was invisible to me.’

Despite the tragedy and sorrow that follow Lilly throughout her long life, this is not a book of sadness. Uplifting perhaps not, but very real and believable, and in its own way life affirming. Similar to The Secret Scripture, I was unsure about the denouement. But I had already loved the book, and Lilly, at that point, and there was no going back. It is more of a mild niggle…

Life, loss, love, grief, tragedy, remembering and memory are all the stuff of life, and so it seems of Barry’s fiction-yet-real novels:

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.’


I originally read this memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2003) a few years ago, and re-read it last week having watched snippets of the recent BBC4 dramatisation (I did not particularly like the bits of the TV adaptation that I saw, mainly as my memory of the book was quite different, a memory I wanted to hang on to).

I loved the book when I first read it, and enjoyed it even more the second time round.

The format is seductive. Almost all chapters have a food heading, for example ‘Lemon Drops’, ‘Sherbet Fountain, ‘Bread-and-Butter Pudding, ‘Fried Eggs’. But one soon realises that the subtext is not that of the comforting aspect of food. Rather, the narrative focuses on childhood memories, which are indeed food-related, but are not particularly happy rememberings, often the opposite, and are rarely suffused with a Proustian-like nostalgia.

Slater’s childhood, or how he chooses to delineate it in this memoir, was one punctuated by food and by mealtimes, over which clouds of silence, secrets, loneliness, and confusion hover in an adult world.

At the outset we are introduced to the author’s mother, and she features prominently in the first half of the book. In the chapter ‘Toast’, Slater speaks fondly of her:

‘It’s impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.’ (p.1)

We share Slater’s sense of exclusion, and his increasing unease as he senses that something is not right in their world:

‘Nobody tells me anything. They talk in whispers over my head…’ (p.45).

The foreboding persists, and culminates in the premature death of his mother. I was surprised how little we learn of how this affected Slater emotionally, but then this is a book where feelings are not expressed directly, but circuitously. One does get some sense of his distress, albeit obliquely:

‘When your mum dies you notice little things more, like your senses are all cranked up a notch’ (p.114)

In the second half of the book, Slater’s relationship with his father, which was never straightforward, comes to the fore:

‘For all his soft shirts and cuddles and trifles I was absolutely terrified of him.’

Much centres on mealtime battles, on food, and time spent (unhappily) at the table:

‘Every time my dad feeds me he goes quiet, thoughtful, distant even.’ (p.89)

When his father loses the battle over porridge, Slater comments:

‘My father’s disappointment in his youngest son is so obvious you could put it on a plate and eat it.’ (p.89)

The tension created by silence, by the unsaid, is almost palpably sad. Since ‘my mother had gone’:

‘Every meal was seasoned with guilt. His. Mine.’ (p.110)

Slater’s mother is replaced by Joan, who speaks about him in the third person in his presence, and expresses herself almost exclusively through homemaking, cleaning, baking and cooking. A domestic goddess of sorts, who Slater never warmed to, or even really appeared to like, he admits to admiring her lemon meringue pie:

‘Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth…’ (p.154)

and also acknowledges another Joan, hidden behind the making and the baking:

‘She is aware, I know, that none of my dad’s friends like her. It suddenly occurs to me that she is probably as lonely as I am.’ (p.185)

For the relationship between father and son, communication takes place through food, occasionally exhibiting a kindness that cannot be otherwise expressed. When Slater’s mother dies, for example, his father places two marshmallows on his bedside table. This nightly routine continued for two years.

On the other hand, he also tried to control who his son was, or might be, through food:

‘He always winced when I asked for fairy drops. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have some Brazil nut toffees?’ he said, trying desperately to make a man of me.’ (p.117)

I have thought much about this book, both when I first read it, and since my re-read. Food is so central to our lives, essential, yet also used as a tool, to hide behind, to disguise what can otherwise be too painful to express. The physicality of food concretises emotions, and has the potential to further confuse issues:

‘Without a word he stabs his fork into a slice of ham and slaps it on my plate. A hot wave of hate goes through my body. Hate ham, hate him.’ (p.33)

It seems as if the power of food goes beyond what it is. Perhaps it is a useful tool, at times. Not all can be expressed with words, and we do need other vehicles to channel our feelings and to facilitate how we connect. Yet we also abuse it, and give it a status that can distract us from the real business of who we are and what we truly need.

Slater’s childhood experiences clearly have not destroyed his relationship with food. His current TV series testifies to someone who truly loves food, and who also treats it kindly.


Our relationship with death is influenced by many things, but culture and religion seem to predominate.

Yesterday while listening to BBC Radio4, I caught the end of Kate Adie’s programme ‘A Poisonous Cocktail’, which features reports from various correspondents around the world. The tail end I caught contained a report from Will Grant in Mexico.

Grant was recently in Mexico, during Halloween, a time which specifically highlights the relationship that Mexican people have with death, and with the dead. They mourn the loss of those who have died, but they also choose to celebrate their lives, with a national annual two day festival, which coincides with our Halloween.

The festival combines All Souls Day, All Saints Day and the indigenous rituals of the Day of the Dead, thus rooted both in a religious and a cultural heritage.

On day 1, altars and specific artefacts that evoke the memory of loved ones, to ‘help them on their way’, are on display throughout the country.

On day 2, the celebrations move to cemeteries, where candles are lit, and partying begins, literally dancing on the tombs of the dead, their way of saying goodbye.

Thus, in Mexico death is an integral part of the lives of the living. Children are aware from an early age that death is inevitable, and loss is simultaneously mourned and celebrated. The spirits and souls of those who have died are sent off into the unknown openly, with an embrace, and with love.


I set myself the task of reading all six shortlisted books, and failed… three more to go on the eve of the announcement.

However, I did get a taste of all six books, as well as an introduction to their creators, at an event at the Southbank tonight where the shortlisted authors read an excerpt from their work and were interviewed live by James Naughtie. It was a thrilling event, and a literary buzz pervaded the auditorium as the six very different authors, both in terms of personality and literary style, shared the stage.

But there did seem to be a common thread across all the books presented. An audience member questioned whether the thread might be mental illness. This was answered by Deborah Levy, author of Swimming Home. She disagreed that insanity was the central theme of her book, but rather that the central characters, outwardly ‘normal’ who were just about coping with life and its challenges, were easily unhinged, like many of us perhaps, by external and unexpected events. Will Self (Umbrella) questioned the prominence and popularity of mental illness in literary fiction today, and particularly the ease with which we so cleanly separate insanity from sanity, similar to good from bad, whereas in fact the distinctions are arbitrary.

So, mental illness is not the accepted common thread.

For me, memory, its essentiality for our functioning and being, and the act of remembering as a re-enactment of loss and suffering, appeared prominent throughout most of the texts. In Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, the central character Futh is haunted and driven by Proustian memory that he cannot escape nor move on from. In Umbrella, those affected by encephalitis lethargica can spend significant lengths of time in a coma, a void of memories and of remembering. In Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, the central character develops aphasia as she seeks to deal with memories of war and the loss of her sister.

The fact of memory inevitably implies a remembering, and a past. Hilary Mantel (Bringing Up the Bodies) put forward an interesting take on the past, as important in its own right, rather than a going back or an imprint on the present…

And then there is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which has a Bombay opium den in the 1970s and 1980s at its centre… A performance artist primarily, the brief excerpt Thayil read tonight was poetic and seductive.

I will continue and complete reading the shortlist, beyond tomorrow’s announcement. It promises to be a diverse and rich read.

The stuff of memories…


Rona Munro’s play is currently on at the Hampstead Theatre, Downstairs, and is a gem.

The piece is based on a true story – also depicted in the recent, and not widely acclaimed film The Vow – of a man who has post traumatic amnesia. The amnesia is selective, and affects recent memory, which means that he does not recognise his current wife of three years. His memory bank appears to have emptied from the moment he left his initial partner, and her daughter. Thus, all memory of the traumatic break-up and its aftermath have been erased, and he is stuck in a past moment that he perceived as happy. Yet, the debris of the break-up, its effect on his ex-partner and her daughter – become all too apparent to us, even if Donny has no recall. Plus, there is also the emotional trauma for his current wife, and her distress faced with a husband who does not recognise her, or even like her.

There is little in terms of plot, but there is a redemption of sorts in the end…

What the play provoked for me was some considerable musings on memory, identity, and how they interact, conflate, and define us humans.

When you think about it, pretty much everything we do is based on some sort of memory. We are memory-focused and memory-driven. Most, if not all, of how we behave and respond to life tends to be based on a past experience, which inevitably becomes a deposited remembering.

Even babies are born with memory, which stems from their in utero experience.

There is no such thing as a clean memory slate…

Thus, for Donny, the realisation that three years have been ‘erased’ is a hugely distressing and disturbing experience. He has to rely on others to fill in the gaps. And this brings us to the second consideration, that memories are subjective, not fact-based. Thus, others witness and remember shared experiences differently. There is rarely a right or wrong to remembering, but there is a wide continuum in how individuals perceive and remember events. Which adds to the definition of humanness, its diversity, and its greyness…

The play is great, and the cast, just 5 in an intimate theatre setting, do it justice.

Memory-making stuff.