Review: ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ by Kim Edwards

This has been on my shelf for a while and I finally settled down to it some weeks ago – settled to the point of spending a whole evening away ignoring the lure of ‘Strictly’ and being utterly engrossed in how this story was going to end.

‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ is the story of David Henry’s decision one fateful winter night in 1964, when his wife Nora gives birth to twins and the girl baby is found to have Down’s Syndrome. Figuring it’s the best for all, he sends the girl away and tells his wife she died, leading to a road that Dr David Henry never imagined he would travel down.

David Henry is a difficult character to feel sympathy for, but that’s the point: he does a terrible thing according to twenty-first century thinking, but in the 1960s (as Edwards shows) attitudes were not all-embracing and tolerant, clashing with our modern ideology. As such, we struggle between not understanding and trying to understand, making this a morally engrossing read as we test our perceptions. Likewise, although Nora seems an obvious victim of not only her husband’s betrayal, but of a society unable to accept depression, there’s something holding us back; perhaps it’s her inability to be grateful for the child she has, always searching for something she knows she cannot have. But then, mother’s intuition tells her she can have it, again making this an utter mind-boggling scenario as we attempt to reconcile Nora and her behaviour with what we know – see what I mean about this being a captivating read?!

The storyline itself is pretty simplistic; events come and go, we see the Henry’s struggle with grief and loss, we see Caroline – entrusted with the baby girl – battle for her adopted daughter’s rights, and we see our own attitudes and values tested. Edwards is very clever in how subtly she does this; although there is one use of ‘mongoloid’, the rest of the language is designed to make us feel uncomfortable without breaking major taboos; personally, I think this works better – it frames our unease with the treatment of Down’s Syndrome children within language we use now and understand, rather than just provoking an outrage ‘you can’t say that!’ it provokes a ‘how do I feel about that? Technically have they done anything wrong…?’ undoubtedly along with a look of confusion. It’s a tactful and brilliant way of writing that makes you think rather than jumping to our pre-programmed reactions.

Finally, I did appreciate the ending – not happily ever after as such, but the start of something new at the end of our story, showing possibilities and hopes with no promises attached. I’ll leave it there for the sake of spoilers, but each character ends where they rightfully should without the cloying feeling of everything having slotted neatly into place – there are no neat edges in this jigsaw, it’s safe to say.

I thoroughly recommend ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ for those intrigued by historical attitudes to disabilities, and those who enjoy a read filled with moral dilemmas and difficult choices at every turn – I promise you’ll come away rethinking your own attitudes towards a multitude of issues.

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