Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Memory of Things" by Gae Polisner

September 11, 2001. A day etched into our memories. Each of us that was old enough to understand the events of that tragic day can remember where they were, what they were doing, when they heard the news, or in some cases, saw the events unfolding before their disbelieving eyes.

In Gae Polisner's exquisitely moving novel, The Memory of Things, 16-year-old Kyle is in class at Stuyvesant High School when the first of the Twin Towers collapses. The school is evacuated and students flee for the safety of home. Rushing across the Brooklyn Bridge, Kyle encounters a girl about his own age huddled on the bridge, covered in ash, wearing a pair of costume wings. She can barely speak, and doesn't know her own name, but Kyle makes the decision to bring her home with him.

Kyle's father is a New York City police detective, and he knows his father is down at Ground Zero, but he doesn't know whether he's safe. His mother and younger sister are stranded in Los Angeles, so it's Kyle, his Uncle Matt, who was seriously injured in an accident a few months earlier, and the mysterious girl, who come together amidst the chaos. Kyle wants to help the girl figure out who she is and where she came from, but the more he helps her, the more he realizes he doesn't want her to remember, to leave him, even though his father would make him do the responsible thing and alert the authorities.

"Tuesday, and those planes, they've broken something. Permanently. And in the process, they've changed everything. And everyone."

The book shifts its narration between Kyle, who is trying to process the tragedy while worrying about his family, caring for his uncle, and simultaneously wanting to help the girl and keep her with him as they grow closer, and the girl, who, through flashes of memories, begins to let her story unfold. This is a beautiful story, about the need to keep hope alive in the midst of any tragedy, because it is often hope that buoys you through. As Polisner says in her equally moving and thought-provoking Author's Note, "Ultimately, this is not a 9/11 story, but a coming-of-age story, one about healing and love. This is a story about hope."

This really was a wonderfully told, compelling story. Polisner is a terrific writer, and I'm definitely going to have to read some of her previous books, because I love the way she let this story unfold. The girl's narration is a little off-putting, as it's mostly told in snippets of memories, but it so works in the frame of this story. I felt Polisner really captured the emotions, the feelings of confusion and hopelessness and fear that so many felt in the first few days after 9/11.

I won't deny that this story is moving and emotional, but it never gets maudlin. It's definitely one I won't forget anytime soon.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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