Author Stefan Merrill Block's first novel is a tour de force of interconnecting lives, complete with the history of a family curse, fables about a land of no remembrance and scientific studies on Alzheimer's disease. Abel Haggard is an elderly hermit who lives in what was once his family's Texas farmhouse but is now a shack surrounded by McMansions, filled with owners who want to get rid of him. He survives by reliving his memories, beginning with his childhood as one of a set of twins, identical to his brother Paul except for Abel's hump.
Abel and Paul's mother told her young sons tales about the land of Isidora, a golden kingdom whose inhabitants were content because they remembered nothing. The Isidora fables had been passed down through their family --- a family in which so many relatives throughout the generations suffered the loss of their memories.
When Abel and Paul grow up, Paul marries Mae. Abel yearns for Mae; he is fascinated by everything about her, including her strange toes and the manner in which she eats beans. He is so enraptured by his sister-in-law, and rendered so hopeless by his impossible love, that he contemplates suicide. Instead, he does the unthinkable: he climbs into a tree outside the bedroom shared by Mae and Paul. There, in the dark, he watches them sleep, fantasizing about Mae and pondering Paul's oddly disinterested behavior toward her.
While Abel remembers his long-ago love for Mae, and the sequence of events unleashed by his passion, a shy and awkward 15-year-old boy named Seth Waller worries about his mother. Her behavior has become increasingly erratic --- she doesn't eat, never changes out of her nightgown, acts as if she has never before seen her own house, and shuffles along like a very old woman. One morning she asks Seth how long she has known him, saying, "I feel like I've known you my whole life."
Seth can't help being sarcastic with his mother at times, as a kind of defense mechanism. But it shrivels his soul to see the way his father treats her, labeling her forgetfulness as a case of deliberate selfishness. Seth's father works long hours. When he's home, he slumps in a recliner in front of the History Channel, swilling gin. After Seth's mother leaves the house in the middle of the night, Seth searches frantically until he finally finds her under a street lamp, carrying a suitcase and saying she's going home. Not long afterward, she is admitted into a nursing home and diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Seth has always wanted to be a scientist. Now he is determined to find something, anything, that will help his mother. While he is reading everything he can find on Alzheimer's, he is also remembering the stories his mother often told him when he was a child. She told of a place beside our world, a real land called Isidora. People could cross over to Isidora, where much was the same as in this world…except everyone there felt happy because they couldn't remember anything. Seth also realizes how little he knows about his mother's background.
The lives of Abel and Seth intertwine in a surprising yet inevitable manner. The mosaic joins together, tile by tile, with interspersed pieces of family history, scientific studies of Alzheimer's and the Isidora lore. Abel and Seth are such fully-realized characters and their stories are so realistic that at times the reader can't help wondering how fictional they truly are. THE STORY OF FORGETTING is a marvelous and compelling read, filled with tragedy but also humor and hope --- and readers are sure to ponder the story long after they've finished it.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 23, 2011
The Story of Forgetting