The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Such an ominous sounding term for a perfect sky.
But somehow, when tragedy strikes, people remember the sky. In documentaries about the JFK assassination, a morning shower had stopped, leaving behind beautiful blue skies. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after launch, it was one of the deepest blue skies I’ve ever seen, so clear that I could clearly see that horrible plume all the way from Tallahassee.
September 11th, 2001, dawned with New York skies exemplifying what pilots refer to as “severe clear”: unlimited ceiling, unlimited visibility. Some pilots joke that these skies are so clear you can see tomorrow.
Nobody would want to see tomorrow, not that horrible morning.
On 9/11, sixteen-year-old Kyle Donahue was among the throngs walking away from the wreckage in Manhattan after the planes struck and the Twin Towers collapsed. The crowd was nervous, but strangely calm. Everybody knew they needed to evacuate to Brooklyn, where hopefully they’d be safe.
Kyle was concentrating on the task at hand—keeping his feet moving—when he noticed something in his peripheral vision: a giant bird. He kept walking, then something told him to go back. Something was amiss. This huge bird might be injured. He turned back, fighting his way through the crowd. When he finally reached the bird, he saw what it truly was. It was a girl about his age, wearing a pair of costume wings—the type you might wear in a play or to a Halloween party. The girl was definitely not a bird, those wings were definitely not made for flying, and she was most definitely pondering the waters of the East River below–she was about to jump.
Kyle caught her in time. He got her to her feet, and guided her back into the crowd heading toward Brooklyn. It was obvious the girl was in some sort of trouble. She couldn’t answer the most basic questions—where do you live? Are you hurt? What should I call you? Left with no other option, Kyle led her home to his family’s comfortable apartment—if nothing else, the skies were still clear over Brooklyn, while the world to their backs lay beneath hellish clouds of smoke and ash and debris.
The girl was filthy, covered in the very ash that blanketed Manhattan. He found some clean clothes that would probably fit her well-enough, and guided her to the bathroom so she could shower. He even did his best to clean the dust and ash from the wings.
Until 9/11, Kyle’s life—like that morning’s sky—had been pretty clear. He was a gifted student at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. He had a tough but loving father, a Lieutenant with the NYPD’s Joint Terrorist Task Force His mother was kind, a trust-fund baby, which is how they could afford the family’s nice Brooklyn apartment. He had a younger sister, Kerri, who—like all little sisters—was a pain in the ass, but you could hear the affection and love he held for her.
As with all of us, occasional storm clouds invaded Kyle’s sky. His beloved Uncle Matt had been in a serious motorcycle accident five months previous, and was confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak clearly or take care of himself. (Thankfully, the family hired Karina, a wonderful caregiver to help with Matt). Also, all of the Donohue men were cops—Kyle’s dad, Uncle Matt, and his Uncle Paul—and nobody really understood why Kyle would want to pursue anything other than joining the NYPD, much less go to Stuyvesant rather than nearby Brooklyn Tech. Kyle once had a passion for playing guitar, but his father and Uncle Paul mocked that as well, and the passion abated. He still loved music—especially U2—but his Guild acoustic rested in its case, untouched for months.
That horrible morning, though, Kyle’s life looked as foreboding as the hideous cloud over Manhattan. His father would have been a first-responder, and Kyle had no idea whether he was alive or dead. His mother and sister were in California, and were due to fly back that morning. Kyle had no idea what fate had befallen them—were they in the air? Were there other hijackings? Bombs at LAX? Amidst the chaos, Karina had not been able to make it to work, meaning Kyle would have to take full responsibility for Uncle Matt’s care. Also, were his classmates safe? His friends? How bad would the damage ultimately be, and—oh, my God—were the attacks even over? Were we at war?
And then there was the strange girl currently occupying his sister’s room. Who was she? She seemed hugely traumatized, and Kyle was convinced she had been about to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. The girl wouldn’t answer even the most basic questions—did she even know who she was or what had happened? She was an additional problem Kyle didn’t need, especially with all his other new responsibilities, but there was something sad and mysterious about her. He knew she couldn’t go out into the world by herself, not in her current condition, but there was more to it. She was a riddle, and Kyle was determined to solve her.
The fact that she was cute didn’t hurt, either.
My boldest memory from 9/11—other than those wretched images the networks repeated constantly—was that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’d knocked down the Twin Towers, destroyed a section of The Pentagon, and where had that fourth plane been headed? The White House? The Capitol? What the hell could possibly happen next?
I think most of us pondered that during those days, whether those horrors were the end of a single attack, or the start of a war.
But during those days, life still went on. Meals were cooked and eaten. Dishes were washed. People bathed and did laundry and went to work. Despite our deep-seated national fear, we managed to keep up with life’s basic cadences.
So did Kyle. Drawing on strength he hadn’t known he possessed, he managed, too. He took care of Uncle Matt. He did laundry. He cooked meals. He managed to track down information about his father, and his mother & sister. He reached out to friends, and learned that some of his peers had lost family in the World Trade Center. He felt horrible for them, and intended to call and offer condolences…
But then there was the girl, that puzzling damn girl. Kyle knew he should take her to the police station or a hospital, but she adamantly refused to go. She begged and pleaded. She wouldn’t say why, but she was obviously scared, so Kyle let her stay. At least for a few days, till things simmered down. Plus, he liked having her around, a welcome distraction from the hell a few miles away.
What Gae Polisner has done in her wondrous, addictive novel, The Memory of Things, is to show through Kyle what we all had to do. We had to grieve, of course—not to do so would be inhuman—but we also had to move on with our lives. A few thousand people were dead or dying, and yet the rest of us still had gas tanks to fill, groceries to buy, diapers to change. Our hearts ached, but we had to keep our heads clear, and make sure our lives continued normally.
That’s how Ms. Polisner presents Kyle Donohue. He’s a scared sixteen-year-old kid who’s been forced to shoulder adult responsibilities, to keep life going despite the chaos across the river.
And Kyle’s narrative is as straightforward as his thinking. His thoughts are coherent and clear. He worries about holding everything together, but he manages to do just that. The big wrinkle, though, is the girl. How would he ever return her to her family—and did she even have any family left?
The girl’s portion of the narrative is far different from Kyle’s. Where Kyle steps-up for their odd little family—Kyle, Uncle Matt, and her—her thoughts are a jumble of seemingly random images. Swimming as a child one minute, then dancing, then explosions, then wondering about that boy (“Kyle?”), and what he was going to do with her.
Ms. Polisner writes the girl’s part beautifully. The girl’s mind shimmers with clear, poetic snapshots of memory (or imagination? We can’t tell!). Using these snapshots, we try and piece together who this girl is, her backstory, and where she needs to go next. Initially, her thoughts are so brief and disjointed, her communication so fractured, that we imagine she probably needs a psych ward.
As her four days in the Donohue home pass, though, her thoughts become somewhat clearer. The images coalesce somewhat, and we can see that while she was obviously traumatized by the attacks, there is something even worse, something more damaging and painful that happened to her well before 9/11. The girl’s thoughts imply this event marked her forever, and have left her afraid to open herself up, even to Kyle, her rescuer.
Even after three days together, she still hasn’t told Kyle her name. Initially, she may not even remember it herself, but as lucidity sets in, she begins to recognize her life, and knows she’s just guarding herself.
From what, though? That’s another beautiful part of The Memory of Things. The girl’s mind is not all strictly about memories, about the past. She and Kyle bond during their days together. They become friends. They share conversations, even an afternoon sojourn to a deserted Coney Island. They grow closer, hold hands, and ultimately kiss.
Ms. Polisner could easily have gotten carried away here. She could have had Kyle and the girl fall madly in love, swearing eternal devotion to one another against the smoking ruins across the river. She could have ended the book with an Epilogue, showing the couple twenty years later, sharing a love-rich suburban house with their 2.3 adorable children, and a Golden Retriever named “Daisy.” This would have been such an easy way to wrap up the story. Most readers would be happy for the couple, and we’d all walk away smiling. Fade to black.
But Gae Polisner is too sage an author to lapse into such saccharine cliché. The Memory of Things is too great a story to end on such an unworthy note. If nothing else, these two beautifully drawn characters deserve more than a cheap way out.
In the end, the various strands eventually come together, and we can see how the two teens’ situations will inevitably change. We finally gain insight into the girl’s tragic past. ( I was certain I had it figured out pretty early, and it turns out Gae Polisner threw the nastiest literary curveball I can remember right by me; I couldn’t have been more wrong.)
We’re left to wonder: will Kyle and the girl stay in touch, build on their trial-by-fire relationship, and grow ever closer? It’s possible. They are one another’s first loves, but their circumstances were far more intense than the typical, mawkish, teenagers meet-cute story. There was no nervous promposal or sweaty-palmed attempt at hand-holding.
Together or apart, we know that these two will see plenty of blue skies, some puffy white clouds, and no doubt their fair share of gray, rainy days. This is normal; this is real life.
We’ve seen this girl move from wanting to kill herself to relishing the small bits of life she and Kyle have shared. We have seen how—defects and all—she helped Kyle learn that he is strong and smart, and wise enough to choose his own path.
Near the end of this ineffable jewel of a story, Kyle finally learns the girl’s name.
Obviously, I won’t reveal it here—it wouldn’t be fair to either the girl or the author—but this girl who walked with Kyle through that terrible week has an appropriately beautiful name.
And it means “grace.”
Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley)