THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER by Kim Edwards is an auspicious debut novel that revolves around one unfortunate choice made by a man who felt there could be no other outcome to the situation.
Doctor David Henry helps deliver his wife's babies, he himself being an orthopedic surgeon. Along with his colleague Caroline Gill, a nurse, they witness the birth of a boy, Paul, and a girl, Phoebe. But they don't tell his wife Norah that Phoebe is born with Down's syndrome. It is 1964 and common for Mongoloid babies to be sent away to special homes at birth. What David decides to do is pretty close to being a crime --- he asks Caroline to take the baby away to a home that cares for children like Phoebe, and he tells his wife that their daughter has died.
David's action becomes a major turning point in the lives of Norah, their son Paul, and Caroline Gill, who decides to raise the baby as her own child. After seeing the home she was told to deliver Phoebe to, she realizes that she can't leave the baby there. In the back of her mind she knows she can give Phoebe a better life.
David and Norah's lives turn for the worst as David's lies create an invisible wall around him, and he and Norah drift apart. Where once their marriage had been a happy one, the "death" of Phoebe destroys it. And Paul, sensing the unhappiness of his parents, also is affected by the death of his twin, becoming a rebellious teenager who easily could turn to a life of delinquency and crime.
Ironically, David had made his decision based on his own childhood experiences, as he watched his parents live in constant fear of losing his sister, who also had Down's syndrome; she was born with heart defects and had no chance of surviving into adulthood. It was David's need to protect Norah from the sorrows of raising a child such as his sister that forced him to give Phoebe away, not understanding how the death of a child would impact his wife, or any mother. At the same time, David acting as if the baby was never born causes Norah to turn away from him as he begins to frustrate and anger her as the years go by.
As David's lies remain hidden, he turns to photography as a means to create some semblance of control in his life, using it to capture what he feels is life around him. He becomes obsessed to the point of alienating Norah even more, while Norah discovers "interests" outside the home, with detrimental results.
The book advances through several decades of changes, as the reader is introduced to Bree, Norah's free-spirited sister in the midst of the turbulent 1960s. Al, a truck driver who happened to be there that lonely night when Caroline was supposed to have taken the baby away, ends up being an integral part of Caroline and Phoebe's life. Ironically, David's decision to get rid of their child to protect his wife actually ruins their lives, while it brings hope to Caroline, a lonely spinster who didn't know if she ever would find true happiness. As she fights to give Phoebe the best life she can, Caroline grows from a meek and insecure woman to one of strength and self-assuredness. Norah also becomes a stronger woman despite the loss of her baby and David's misconception that she needed to be protected.
THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER is a page-turner, a wonderfully crafted tale of two sets of people tied by the lie of one man. What is most fascinating to this reviewer is the parallel stories of the two children, twins who grow up in separate environments, becoming as different as night and day. The fact that Phoebe thrived despite David's predictions for her is tragic, because he deprived his own wife the love of a daughter who she thought had died. While Phoebe blossoms into a productive and healthy woman, her twin Paul grows up in her shadow, not knowing she is alive, finding that he is competing with her for his parents' attentions despite the fact that she is "dead." This is what drives the story --- as one family thrives, the other one deteriorates.
Kim Edwards's debut novel is a winner, and those who read THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER are going to want to read her next one. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton on June 23, 2005
The Memory Keeper's Daughter