The duty of remembering

Books: REMIND ME WHO I AM, AGAIN by Linda Grant Granta pounds 14.99
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MEMORY, as any dictionary will tell you, is the mental process by which past events, emotions and sensations are logged and recalled. What the dictionary is less likely to mention is that memory is also the most essential tool that human beings have for carving a meaningful shape out of the rambling, inconsequential happenings of a lifetime. The urge to negotiate some coherent pathway from past to present to future is what enables us to live alongside one another in relative harmony. When someone's version of the truth veers too widely from the accepted mark, we label them mad, bad or dangerous.

This unique human capacity for conscious remembering is something we take as given. Until, as in the case of Linda Grant's mother, that capacity begins to disintegrate.

When one thinks of dementia, one tends to imagine the end of the process, the final point of endless forgetting; seldom does one dwell, if not obliged to, on the terrifying journey to that point. Grant's account of her mother's dementia takes us on that descent into darkness, further and further from the light of the recognisable, the known, the knowable. In the type of dementia Grant's mother has, known as Multi-Infarct Dementia, a series of mini-strokes in the brain knock out parts of the memory in such a way that the sufferer is at least partially aware of what is happening, able to witness his or her own, out-of-control, slither into madness. "I look round when I'm in my flat and I don't recognise where I am," Rose Grant confesses to her daughter. "Sometimes I start crying and I can't remember what I'm crying about."

The process starts inconspicuously, with small exaggerations of normal behaviour: being more petulant than usual, more inclined to fly off the handle. "Which bit was the illness and which her real personality? And how could you tell them apart?" Grant asks herself in retrospect. Then come the first lapses of memory, airily dismissed by the GP: "Old people forget things," he says. "My own mother forgets things."

Before long, the disease has progressed to a stage where conversations are like those nightmarish fairground rides that whirl you round and round on the same axis. There is a grim humour to it at times. After the death of Princess Diana, Grant takes her mother to lay flowers. "Those poor boys," Rose says. "Left without a mother." "I know, it's awful isn't it?" "Do you think she'll remarry?" "She's dead." "That's right. I saw her sons walk behind the coffin. Terrible. Do you think she'll remarry?" Eventually whole chunks of basic vocabulary have been excised. Ordinary words such as bus, sugar-lump or church-spire are beyond reach.

Rose Grant is not some sweetly smiling old biddy; she is a furious, bewildered, humiliated woman, who goes to enormous lengths, for as long as possible, to conceal what is happening to her. She rushes off to non-existent lunch dates, preferring chronic loneliness to the shame of letting friends witness her mutilated memory. She goes out on a freezing December day without her coat rather than admit she's forgotten that was why she'd gone to her room. Both her daughters endure hours of abusive phonecalls, helpless recipients of their mother's equally helpless terror and rage.

Grant looks into the heart of this misery with a remarkably steady gaze, describing what she sees there, of herself and her mother, with great compassion and honesty. She offers not just a moving account of an illness, but a delicate, sensitive consideration of the relationship between memory and identity.

Who are we if we can no longer remember anything about ourselves? "Who are any of us without a history?" as Grant puts it. Her book is a daughter's gift to a mother. It reconstructs a life, a past, for a woman who can no longer do it for herself. It explores the links that bind a mother and daughter, as well as the gulfs of experience and expectation that divide them. Grant describes herself repeatedly as lacking filial feeling, as an undutiful daughter, a Goneril instead of a Cordelia. But in this book she gives her mother back her identity. What more could a daughter do?

But Grant's book is more than a memoir-by-proxy. As so often happens, one person's forgetting prompts another's remembering, and as her mother's past slides away into the abyss of her ruined brain, Grant grasps at the vanishing memories, realising almost too late that her mother's past forms part of her own identity too. It is an identity, as she superbly conveys, rooted in rootlessness, founded on the immigrant's profound ambivalence towards the past, towards memory itself.

This is the other, marvellously powerful story in this book, distinct from but connected to the story of Rose Grant's dementia. It is the story of second-generation Anglo-Jewry, the generation whose parents were immigrants from Russia, Poland or Romania, the ones who had to bridge the divide between the old life and the new, who had to marry two warring realities.

Grant captures all the suspicion, the self-reliance, the ebullience, the insecurity and the outright snobbishness of this generation, for whom antique furniture will not do because it is "second-hand", for whom the past must be honoured but also escaped. She describes growing up "in a family where the past was shifting and untrustworthy, where people's memories ... were not necessarily to trusted. My family had simply re-invented itself for the 20th century and a new land, shedding the past which like a skin was left to decompose and die." It is a story familiar to thousands of Jewish families in Britain, though little talked or written about.

In Jewish culture, remembering is a duty, a collective responsibility, a mitzvah. Grant writes, "I don't know if it is a tragedy or a blessing when Jews, who insist on forgiving and forgetting nothing, should end their lives remembering nothing." In Remind Me Who I Am, Again, both a life and a way of life are brilliantly remembered.