Marcus Sedgwick is something of a literary chameleon. Seemingly able to excel at everything, from picture books to graphic novels to a historical vampire novel for adults, he is best known for young adult fiction. Now, in his second novel for adults, Sedgwick shows he can pen a masterful historical thriller --- one that is more than a little titillating, too.
The “Mister Memory” of the novel’s title is Marcel Després. Born in a small town, he came to Paris as a young man and, unable to keep any ordinary job, took employment at the so-called Cabaret of Insults, thanks to his most peculiar talent. Marcel is blessed --- or perhaps cursed --- with the ability to remember in prodigious detail every moment of his life, from before he was born. No mere parlor trick, Marcel’s talent enables him to remember whole sequences of numbers or the entire contents of a spice cabinet, after a mere glance to absorb what he’s seeing.
"Sedgwick shows he can pen a masterful historical thriller --- one that is more than a little titillating, too."
So when --- after what appears to be a jealousy-fueled rage that results in the death of his young wife --- Marcel essentially turns himself in to the police, he is, of course, completely unable to forget not only his crime but also everything that led up to it. But he’s not talking, which may be the reason he lands not in prison but in a mental hospital. Or is it?
The young investigator assigned to the case, Inspector Petit, probably could just sweep the case under the rug. Marcel seems unlikely to kill again, after all, and in Paris in 1899, there’s always another violent crime to solve. But something about the case seems a little off to Petit, and when he finds a provocative photograph of Marcel’s dead wife, Ondine, he sets off to learn what really happened to bring those three people together in that small studio that fateful day.
MISTER MEMORY is suffused with the milieu and language of Belle Epoque Paris, from the old-fashioned narration style and chapter headings (“What the Camera Saw”) to intriguing descriptions of 19th-century pornography catalogued at the so-called Library of Hell.
Sedgwick’s novel, however, also brings to bear many theories of memory and of the mind that remain fascinating and relevant more than a hundred years after the story’s setting. What is the difference between truth and perception? What role does memory play in our understanding of the past and our ability to conceptualize a future? And, most importantly, what is the relationship between memory and identity? “All that we are is an assembly of a sequence of memories,” remarks the alienist who treats Marcel and becomes increasingly invested in his case. “And if they are merely a sequence of individual, discrete events, then how can we create a single continuous self from them?”
These considerations, both philosophical and scientific, make MISTER MEMORY a historical thriller that will not be easy for readers to forget.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 24, 2017