Genre: Historical fiction
The facts of the matter were these:
At a little before ten o’clock in the evening of the first Saturday in July 1899, Marcel Després returned home to his studio apartment in the Cour du Commerce, the narrow passage that connects the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Reaching his rooms on the sixth floor, he discovered his young wife, Ondine, in flagrante delicto with an American man not unknown to the couple. Deprés shot his wife dead, then, at the urging of her lover, fled down into the passage, where he suddenly stopped, falling to his knees.
He was arrested by two gardiens de la paix and held in the local Commissariat de Police for two days, when he was declared insane by the Préfecture, and committed to the asylum of Salpêtrière, under the care of Dr Lucien Morel.
While the above is a true account, Marcel is not a murderer. Though he is possessed of a peculiar talent: he remembers everything.
What initially appears a straightforward murder, committed in a jealous rage, soon proves far more complex: a mystery that ventures deep into the Paris underbelly and the highest echelons of power.
Mister Memory (Hachette Australia, 2016) is a twisting, enchanting tale of intrigue.
While Mister Memory is an adult novel, Marcus Sedgwick is perhaps best known for his YA titles. He has won the Michael L. Printz Award, and has twice received Printz Honors, so I feel kind of sheepish that this is my first encounter with his work, and I’m eager to read more.
Mister Memory has everything you want in a Belle Époque novel: seedy cabarets, paramours, corrupt police, starving artists, wild parties and just a touch of the surreal and improbable. While the story ventures into shadowy places, the narrative style is gilded with a playful, storybook quality, creating a juxtaposition between the sordid and the fanciful and reflecting the era’s preoccupation with spectacle and illusion.
This contrast is woven throughout the story. At the heart of the high-stakes chaos, Marcel is a quiet and melancholy figure: ‘A strange man, a captive of many months, held in cells of one kind or another, a funny kind of hero, doing nothing, saying little.’ His strange ability to remember even the smallest details initially appears a wonderful trick. Indeed, he uses it to earn a living as a cabaret performer. However, out of the limelight, he loses himself inside his memory for hours, even days at a time. Overburdened by the past, he struggles to connect one moment with another and locate himself in the present.
At any moment, any thought can trigger a thousand memories and each one of those memories a thousand more. [Dr] Morel envisages a labyrinth, a maze of infinity, and finally understands what he is up against. If he is to help Marcel, he has to help him stop going into the maze. It is that which disables him, so often, so intensely, so deeply: these wanderings in the lost pathways of his mind.
While Marcel may be a hero of sorts, being confined to an insane asylum, he has little agency. So while Dr Morel tries to teach Marcel to forget, Sedgwick has one of Paris’ few uncorrupt police officers, a chap named Petit, set out to untangle the mystery behind the murder and clear Marcel’s name. Unlike Marcel—who is sympathetic, if a little obtuse—Petit is an easy hero to love: earnest if a touch naive, overwhelmed by the corruption devouring the heart of his city and determined to do something about it, if only he can figure out what.
Mister Memory is a darkly delightful read: smart, strange and sinister with just a touch of whimsy.
Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick is published by Hachette Australia, RRP $29.99.
Thank you to Hachette Australia for providing a copy of Mister Memory in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up one critical issue and ten advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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