Books: A child's garden of curses

E Jane Dickson applauds a double vision of dark secrets

The Memory Game by Nicci French, Heinemann, pounds 14.99

Jane Martello is a reliable sort. When the body of her sister- in-law, Natalie, is dug up in the garden of the family home, Jane is the one who serves up risotto and sympathy to the glamorous Martello clan. Natalie, a beautiful and brilliant 16-year old, disappeared in 1969, when she and Jane were best friends. When Jane marries Claud, Natalie's elder brother, she becomes enmeshed in Martello mythology. The family is her fulcrum and refuge.

So when, in the aftershock of Natalie's exhumation, Jane turns sleuth and directs her murder investigation to the very heart of the family, the reader is as shocked as the Martellos. From the first page Jane, sensible, sensitive and wry, has our absolute confidence. But do reliable sorts necessarily make reliable narrators? Can a sane and honest person bear false witness? This is the question at the heart of The Memory Game, a remarkable first novel by Nicci French.

A thoroughly contemporary thriller, it takes stock elements of the genre (unreliable narrator/revelation through analysis) and stretches them to their philosophical limits. The red herrings at every turn are evolved and involving stories in their own right, prompting seductive notions of parallel truths, and the ending is properly unguessable.

The sheer breadth of the material and the quality of finish would be impressive in any fictional debut, and the well-publicised fact that "Nicci French" is actually the husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French is almost irrelevant. Almost, but not quite. Most couples cannot manage a Sainsbury's run a deux without recourse to Relate. The idea of sitting down and writing a novel with one's spouse is too intriguing to ignore and this reader, at least, was plagued with fantasies of the writers engaging in unseemly spats about whose turn it is to do the pagination or who has prior claim on the wave-washed shore analogy.

The authors have disdained the obvious cop-outs of a dual perspective or time-slip narrative and the writing in The Memory Game is commendably even, the shared style exact and unshowy. Dramatis personae are quirky without falling into caricature. Alan Martello, an Angry Young Man turned literary patriarch and father of the murdered girl, blubs and blusters through the narrative like King Lear played by Kingsley Amis. His confrontation with a feminist critic at the ICA is a set piece worthy of Amis at his early best, but his final breakdown is scary and believable. Separated from the emotionally constipated Claud Mortello, Jane falls for Caspar, a creepy linguistic philospher who has christened his daughter Fanny "to revive the name", but is also attracted to Alex, a pioneer of the controversial Recovered Memory Syndrome.

The title refers to Jane's attempt to retrieve the past she shared with Natalie and the Martellos in order to heal the trauma of the present, but memory proves a slippery medium. Natalie, enshrined in family lore as the picture of innocence cut down, emerges as an altogether more complicated character. The childhood remembered by Jane as a golden period seems quite different through adult eyes. The memory game brings her to the brink of insanity as specific concerns broaden into abstract obsession. Can memory ever be more than an accretion of experience and emotion? Can there be such a thing as a shared history or does all history come down to a narrative which is more or less convincing? What is the purpose of a family if not to collude in a version of events that everyone can live with?

Gerrard and French are distinguished journalists and their roots show in the thoroughness of the research. Descriptions have the authority and immediacy of reportage and the Jacobean toils of the plot rise from a hard-edged world of bicycle locks and council planning permission. If, in the last analysis, the ends of The Memory Game don't tie up neatly in the manner of Nancy Drew, it is because real life is ragged and unresolved. "I think some things don't need to be explained" says Jane. "Sometimes damage should be left in sealed containers, like nuclear waste." In a society increasingly shaped by the politics of disclosure, it is a pertinent thought.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor