Books: A secret history

How do you meet a mother whom you never knew? Carol Birch enjoys a novel that lifts a lid on the past; The Memory Box by Margaret Forster Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99, 276pp
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The Independent Culture
WE MEET Catherine, the central character of Margaret Forster's new novel, soon after the break-up of a long-term relationship and the death of her deeply-loved parents. At 31, Catherine has avoided marriage and accepted that she will probably never have a child. Independent, self- employed, she speaks of her grief in a detached, controlled way. "Tony said I insisted on being superficial," she reports, "and that I needed something to anchor me, to stop me drifting about."

A strange anchor presents itself in the guise of the "memory box," re- discovered while clearing her parents' house. This was left to Catherine by her biological mother, beautiful, charismatic Susannah, of whom not an ill word is spoken and whose absence has always been an unwelcome presence.

Only six months old when Susannah died, Catherine has always rejected any kind of tie with her - partly from loyalty towards the only mother she's ever known, her father's second wife Charlotte, and partly from obscure guilt at the knowledge that her real mother's death was the result of her own birth.

The memory box now draws Catherine. Opening it, the only words she finds are "For my darling Catherine Hope, in the future". Along with this is an odd combination of items - such things as gull's feathers, a shell, an address book, a red hat, an uncompleted painting. They lead to a trail that takes her to Scotland, the Lake District, and a tiny island in the Caribbean; this last a dream-like trip undertaken with her cousin Rory, a charming gay freeloader. Finally, her quest brings her to an encounter in an old people's home with a sick old man, a lover of her mother's.

The real journey is inward, as each item becomes the focus of a reverie on what it might have meant in the dead woman's life. This is a deeply psychological book about the painful process of communication: that of a dying young mother to the baby she knows will never remember her, and that of Catherine, undemonstrative yet desperate to convey the stirrings of bitter grief.

The acknowledgement of these feelings is poignant and understated. Ostensibly, the memory box leads to a series of dead ends. Nothing is neat; ends dangle. But this is a novel of character and Catherine is rewardingly complex: thoroughly modern in her alienation, yet unfashionable in her stiff-upper- lip approach to life.

Margaret Forster excels at this kind of finely-crafted, highly focused fiction. This is a slow, meditative book, with a dreamy cerebral quality. Though sad, a strong note of hope sounds throughout. Like memory itself, it is subtle, full of secrets, and it lingers.