Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Memory Theater


The Memory Theater / Karin Tidbeck
NY: Pantheon, c2021.
240 p.

I just finished the newest novel by Karin Tidbeck, The Memory Theater. And I loved it! It's so dreamy and magical and dark and satisfying. 

Long time readers might remember that Tidbeck's earlier novel, Amatka, was one of my top picks in 2018. It's much more dystopian speculative fiction than this one but equally imaginative and absorbing. I'm using Amatka as my pick for my online Literary Sewing Circle right now, as a matter of fact, so if you are another reader and stitcher, check out the LSC and read along. 

This book is quite different from Amatka in some ways --but it has many of the same themes and concerns; identity, making of the world, and so on. 

For Tidbeck readers, you'll recognize some elements from her short story collection, Jagannath. One of the stories there shows up in the first part of this book. It's quite delightful for the reader of both to recognize it. 

The novel begins in a place called The Gardens, a magical place outside of time, where faerie aristocrats live the same day over and over again, in parties and games. The corruption is evident however, in their cruelty to their servants - children they've stolen away from the world. They scar and torture them, and worse. One of these Ladies discovers Time, and so is cast out into the world to make her own way. 

In a conventional story, Augusta would see the error of her ways and come to embrace the time-bound beauty of the world. In this one, no such luck. Augusta is a terrifying psychopath and never changes. Her one aim is to find her way back to the Gardens, and she will do literally anything to get there. 

Thistle is one of the child servants, and along with his friend Dora (a child of one of the Masters) escapes from the Gardens with the help of a mysterious traveller named Ghorbi. They escape to the crossroads of the world (slightly reminiscent, to me, of the Wood Between the Worlds in the Narnia books, though here it is a desert) and find the Memory Theater, a troupe of actors who play out moments of life in all worlds to keep them from disappearing. 

Dora and Thistle are in pursuit of Augusta, not because they really want to find her for herself, but because she's the only one who knows Thistle's real name -- when he gets that he'll be free. The quest is enlarged with all of these other characters and the deep friendship between Dora and Thistle themselves. It's dreamy, vague and magical, and I found it so absorbing and powerful. Tidbeck is my kind of writer though -- I like books in which I'm not given every bit of a story in exhausting detail, rather, an atmosphere is created that holds the story and engages the imagination. 

In some strange atmospheric way, this story reminded me of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi, quite strongly in the first half. And elements of Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, faerie lore and folk tale, and even Station Eleven resonate with this story. I love a book that seems to be talking to other books even as it is its own strange being.

I was enthralled by this story and read it very quickly. It's one that will stand up to some rereading.

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