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Books: A woman boxed in by family secrets

The Memory Box by Margaret Forster Chatto pounds 15.99
Catherine Musgrave, the heroine of Margaret Forster's new novel, is a young woman in her early 30s carrying a slightly discontented air. She is a talented photographer who lacks the driving ambition which would push her into exhibiting her work and achieving a professional reputation for herself; she is a woman whose relationships with men seem to peter out under the strain of her own contrary awkwardness and inability to countenance the idea of sharing her life with someone; and she is a daughter, whose father and stepmother have recently died, leaving her to face the difficult legacy which the family mythology has bequeathed to her, the image of her own perfect mother Susannah, who died from a heart condition while Catherine was still only a baby.

While sorting through her parents' possessions she comes across a box into which, long ago, her mother placed some seemingly harmless mementoes of her life which she intended that one day, after her death, her daughter should be given. At first Catherine is dismissive of the contents of this "memory box". The items which it preserves - some gull feathers, a necklace, a shell, an address book, a map, a paintbox, a painting, and two art prints - appear inconsequential, and there is no written explanation of the significance which Susannah wanted her daughter to derive from them - of how they connect.

Slowly, however, Catherine is drawn into exploring the meaning of the box, and into an attempt to understand something of the character of the mother she had never known. The story dramatises an idea of the only pressing demand that the dead might possibly wish to make of the living: that somehow, from beyond the grave, they might be able to ignite a spark in the consciousness of someone living, and be restored to memory.

Stated thus baldly the plotline of The Memory Box smacks of romantic cliche; and there is indeed a sense in which one inwardly groans at yet another novel which yearns to uncover the key to the emotional development of an English family through its devastating past secrets. For Margaret Forster's fervent band of admiring readers, this is familiar territory as she has written two highly successful books about her own family, Hidden Lives (1995) and Precious Lives (1997). In the first of these, Forster compared and contrasted the history of three women from her family - her grandmother, her mother, and herself - and tried to fill in the silences and hidden spaces in the two older women's lives. Frustratingly, she left unsolved the most dramatic mystery she posed about her grandmother's life, but these two non-fiction works undoubtedly struck a chord with many readers who possess a similar wish to find out the so-called truth about their family's lives.

But, of course, they can't. Truth is too multifaceted and memory too unreliable. One of the underlying themes of The Memory Box is of the kaleidoscopic nature of memories themselves, of how we sentimentalise them, and of how the moment anyone begins to dissect or interpret a particularly significant or resonant memory it automatically begins to seem less than the sum of its parts.

Catherine Musgrave takes up the challenge of the box and pursues its paltry clues as far as they will take her. She travels as far as the West Indies at one stage, seeking to identify one of the places named in her mother's address book, and having found it she is eventually able to pinpoint a holiday her mother once took there with a man she loved but wouldn't marry. The discovery illuminates another experience of her mother's short life, but in the end, having examined all the traces, Catherine is left with as many questions about Susannah as answers. It would have been so easy for Margaret Forster to invent some melodramatic revelation which would have turned Catherine's life upside down, but instead she opts for a quieter resolution in which the box is seen to have served some purpose in bringing Catherine's dead mother briefly to life, enabling the daughter to confront, once and for all, something of the truth about her mother's past, before moving on.

This provides a necessarily anti-climactic ending, and in less experienced hands it might have proved a disappointment. But the simple clarity and directness of Forster's writing in this, her 19th novel help to give the book a powerful emotional realism which leaves its mark on the reader's mind as strongly as any dramatic incident.