- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball; And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run. — Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) “To His Coy Mistress”
In Boulder, Colorado, just before Madeleine Kimble’s mountaineer husband Aidan James is embarking on an expedition to climb Mount McKinley’s South Face, she pleads with him in Emily Colin’s debut novel “The Memory Thief” (Ballantine Books trade paperback original, 432 pages, $16.00) not to go. Despite an accident six years before involving one of his friends on the notoriously dangerous Eiger Nordwand in Switzerland, Aidan shrugs off her fears, saying he will return. He even makes a vow to Maddie: “I will come back to you.”
Late one night, Maddie gets the devastating news that Aidan has died in an avalanche, leaving her to care for their four-year old son, Gabriel, a boy with a very big secret. The call comes from J.C., Aidan’s best friend and fellow climber, whose grief is seasoned with survivor’s guilt . . . and something more. J.C. has loved Maddie for years, but he never wanted his chance with her to come at so terrible a cost.
More than 2,000 miles east of Boulder, in Wilmington, North Carolina, high school social studies teacher and sometime surfer and beach bum Nicholas Sullivan wakes from a motorcycle crash with his memory wiped clean. He doesn’t remember his beautiful girlfriend of two years, Grace, but his dreams are haunted by visions of a mysterious woman and a young boy, neither of whom he has ever met. Convinced that these strangers hold the answers he seeks, Nicholas leaves everything behind to find them. What he discovers will require a leap of faith that will change all of their lives forever.
Marvell’s famous poem — which English majors will quickly recognize as a prime example of the carpe diem (seize the day) verse form — is an important plot point in this combination romance/fantasy novel. Aidan includes lines from the poem on a drawing that convinces Maddie that — even though he’s dead and buried in the avalanche — he’s using a messenger in the living form of Nicholas Sullivan to send a message to his beloved wife. Sullivan is clearly the Western Union man and he wryly comments on this uncomfortable position. He asks the ghost of Aidan “Why Me?” and Aidan says Nick was chosen because he was empty. A good answer and Nick Sullivan is satisfied.
Not only are characters fully realized and well drawn, her prose mesmerized me — and I’m pretty jaded after all the books I’ve read and reviews I’ve written!
Here’s a sample of the author’s poetic prose, from Chapter One of “The Memory Thief”:
On the surface, there’s no reason for me to be concerned—at least, no more than usual. All Aidan says is “I think I’m going to try the South Face of McKinley again.”
We’re sitting at the kitchen table, me with a cup of coffee, him with a bottle of Gatorade. Gabriel is in his room down the hall, building something with his Legos. He’d gotten a big box of them for his fourth birthday, a mixed lot that J.C. scored on eBay. That was over six months ago, but they can still absorb his attention for hours.
Sunlight plays on the wood table, and Aidan runs one finger through it, tracing a rainbow of colors. It’s an ordinary day, but still I feel a frisson of fear ripple down my spine. “Isn’t that the route you tried last year? When you had to turn back?”
“Yeah, we were trying to do a new variation of the Cassin Ridge, and the weather turned on us. It’s been bugging me ever since.” There’s a pad of paper on the table, and he begins doodling something on it as he speaks—a face, it looks like.
“The one that’s got that place called the Valley of Death?”
He looks up at me, his blond hair falling into his eyes. He needs a haircut, for sure. “That’s the one. What’s got into you, Maddie?”
“I don’t think you should go.” I’ve never said this to him before, and his eyes widen with surprise before they narrow in puzzlement.
“What are you talking about? Why not?”
“I have a bad feeling about this one. I don’t know why, but I do.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s an awesome climb. That was just freaky last year, about the weather. It shouldn’t happen again. We got as far as the bergschrund with no problem—what?” he says, in response to the exasperated face I’m making over the rim of my coffee cup.
“You know I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I say. “English, please.”
He rolls his eyes at me. “A bergschrund is a big crevasse near the head of a glacier. German for ‘mountain crevice,’ if you really want to know.”
“I don’t need the etymology, Aidan. Just the significance.”
“ ’Schrunds can be a real pain in the ass,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest. “In the winter, they’re not such a big deal to traverse. In the summer, you’ve got snowmelt, so they’re these big gaping holes.”
“I just know there’s a point in here somewhere.”
“My point is, what happened last year wasn’t a technical issue. We got across the ’schrund just fine. It was after that that the crappy weather set in.” He unfolds himself and goes back to drawing.
My stomach twists. “I wish you wouldn’t go. Can’t you do something else? Go to Chile, or Spain, or, I don’t know, China. Anywhere else.”
“Relax, honey. You’re getting all worked up over nothing.”
“I’m not,” I say, and even as the words leave my mouth I know that it’s the truth. “I’m telling you, Aidan, I have a bad feeling about this.”
“What, are you psychic now?” His tone is light, but I can tell that irritation lurks beneath.
“I’ve never asked you not to do something. I’m asking you now.”
When he lifts his head this time, his mouth is set in a straight, obstinate line. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
I look down at my coffee, my stomach churning. “I’m not,” I say again, my voice as stubborn as his.
“Yeah,” he says. “You are.” And he gets up from the table, spinning the drawing around to face me. Seen from one angle, there is his face. I look again, and there’s the mountain, rising snow-covered against a cloudless sky. I stare at the picture he’s drawn, watching the image shift from one form to the next. “Don’t go,” I say in a whisper, but it is too late; the front door slams behind him, and I hear the Jeep’s engine rev as he peels out of the driveway.
We fight about the Mount McKinley trip for two months, a record. I argue with him, I yell, I plead. At night I wake from dreams where Aidan goes tumbling off the mountain, crashing to the bottom of a valley and landing, lifeless, in a heap. I dream that he is crushed by falling rock, that his Cessna goes down before he even reaches the glacier, that he steps on a weak snow bridge and goes hurtling into the depths of a crevasse. Then I wake up, my heart pounding in triple time, and look over at Aidan sleeping beside me, peaceful and still. Don’t go, I say into the darkness of our room. Don’t leave me.
* * *
I love debut novels that hit the bullseye and “The Memory Thief” is one of them. Pick up a copy and see what I mean. According to the publisher “Emily Colin is not a mountain climber—she’s actually afraid of heights — but in researching “The Memory Thief” she spent innumerable hours shadowing Outward Bound instructors as they scaled cliffs in Colorado’s Rifle Canyon, conducting reconnaissance missions in an indoor rock-climbing gym closer to home, and speaking with alpinists who took on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley — and lost.”
About the Author
Emily Colin lives in North Carolina with her partner, their son, two reprehensible canines, and a betta fish. In her other life, she serves as associate director at DREAMS of Wilmington, a nonprofit organization that provides multidisciplinary arts programming for youth in need. Her website: http://www.emilycolin.com.